December 10, 2012

OSHA's Role in Promoting Occupational Safety and Health

  • John Leeth

    Professor and Chair, Bentley University Department of Economics
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When OSHA was established, proponents believed it would dramatically improve the safety and health of American workers. During the forty years of its existence, workplace fatalities and nonfatal injuries and illnesses have fallen but OSHA is not the major cause of this decline. Changes in the industrial mix of workers and improvements in safety technology have combined with expanded employer incentives unrelated to OSHA to decrease worker injuries and illnesses. The financial incentives for employers to expand expenditures on worker safety and health created by the labor market, states' workers' compensation insurance programs, and the legal system swamp the meager incentives created by OSHA.

This survey examines OSHA in light of the other forces affecting workplace safety in the United States to generate a set of policy recommendations for how it can best use its limited resources to improve worker safety and health. No evidence exists that expanding the total number of inspections or the average amount of fines for noncompliance would improve its effectiveness significantly. OSHA can best complement the other pillars of the US safety policy system by providing information to workers about possible hazards, particularly health-related hazards, and by gearing inspections toward worksites where dangers are hard to monitor and firms employing less mobile and less knowledgeable workers. It should continue to offer consultation services to small- and medium-sized firms and encourage firms to establish management systems addressing worker safety and health issues.

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