Sometimes, research evidence is used by policy-makers to shape new policy. Other times, research is used to confirm a policy direction. This second purpose—the “supportive” use of research—is evident in the recent decision of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to strengthen its enforcement practices. OSHA pointed to the findings of a systematic review by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) to support its focus on inspections and penalties.
OSHA is the federal agency in the United States charged with the enforcement of safety and health in most private-sector workplaces, as well as some public-sector workplaces. Inspections and penalties are among the tools OSHA uses to direct employers to comply with requirements to identify and control hazards.
In the November 2, 2015 edition of OSHA’s bi-monthly e-newsletter, OSHA QuickTakes, OSHA Assistant Secretary Dr. David Michaels referred to a systematic review led by IWH Senior Scientist Dr. Emile Tompa on the effectiveness of enforcement interventions. The review found strong evidence that regulatory health and safety inspections that result in a citation or penalty are effective in reducing work-related injuries, and that general deterrence—the mere chance that employers may get inspected one day—is not as effective.
This confirms what we have been saying for a long time—that OSHA inspections and penalties are important and effective components of a comprehensive strategy to improve workplace safety and health, Michaels was quoted as saying in OSHA’s e-newsletter. That's why we have made strong, fair and effective enforcement one of OSHA's primary objectives in this Administration.
OSHA raises penalties for first time in 25 years
To meet these objectives of “strong, fair and effective enforcement,” a number of important changes were made in the United States in late 2015. A new budget, signed into law by President Obama on November 2, contained provisions that will raise OSHA penalties for the first time in 25 years. Under the law, after a one-time ‘catch-up adjustment’ that could see fines rise by up to 80 per cent, fines will continue to keep pace with the rate of inflation. The changes in the budget go into effect on July 1, 2016, with the new penalties coming into effect by August 1, 2016.
As Michaels said on October 7, 2015, before the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections in the U.S. House of Representatives, OSHA penalties must be increased to provide a real disincentive for employers accepting injuries and worker deaths as a cost of doing business.
OSHA also changed the way it measures its inspections to give greater weight to those that are likely to have more impact. On October 1, 2015, OSHA introduced an “enforcement weighting system” that emphasizes the quality of inspections over quantity. That is, instead of reporting simply on the number of inspections a year to gauge the impact of its enforcement activity, the agency now reports on the number of “enforcement units,” with the number of units assigned to each inspection depending on the complexity of the inspection.