OSHA fines are supposed to act as deterrents to companies taking shortcuts with employee safety. But a new government report faults the agency for not sufficiently linking OSHA enforcement activities to the ultimate outcome: fewer employee deaths, injuries and illnesses.
The main conclusion of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, Further Steps by OSHA Would Enhance Monitoring of Enforcement and Effectiveness, is:
“OSHA and state-run programs conduct a number of enforcement activities to protect the nation’s workers, but OSHA knows little about their effectiveness. While data on the number of inspections conducted and violations identified at worksites are useful ways to monitor federal and state enforcement activities, they do not provide the type of outcome-oriented information needed to determine which enforcement activities are most effective in ensuring employer compliance and reducing risks to workers.”
The history behind this study dates back seven years.
During an 18-month period from 2006 to 2008, a dozen workers died on construction sites in Las Vegas. Both Congress and OSHA looked into Nevada’s state-run OSHA program and found deficiencies, launching a closer look at the half of all states with similar programs.
So the GAO wanted to examine:
- how OSHA’s monitoring of its own and state enforcement efforts compare, and
- recent steps OSHA has taken to evaluate the effectiveness of federal and state enforcement efforts.
It may come as no surprise that the GAO found federal OSHA monitors its own enforcement activities more closely, frequently and consistently than it checks the state programs.
But, as OSHA notes in a response to the GAO report, it is partially up to the states to monitor their own programs.
While comparing how the effectiveness of the federal and state programs is a key part of the report, a bigger question arises: Has OSHA tied what it measures to outcomes instead of just outputs?
Do more fines equal fewer injuries?
Example: OSHA has compared various measures of its federal program and state-run programs. The breakdown in fiscal year 2012:
- State-run programs conducted more total inspections than federal OSHA
- State-run programs issued more total violations than federal OSHA
- Federal OSHA issued more violations categorized as serious than state-run programs
- Federal OSHA issued higher penalties in dollars, and
- Only 3 out of 22 state-run programs (California, Kansas and Nevada) had average penalty amounts equal to or greater than federal OSHA.
So, now we know how the states compare to the federal program. In its report, the GAO said, “OSHA recently developed several initiatives to better assess the effectiveness of state and federal enforcement efforts.”
But OSHA’s measures are still lacking in one area, according to the GAO. “It is unclear, however, how some of these initiatives will help OSHA demonstrate which activities resulted in desired outcomes — a reduction of worker fatalities, injuries and illnesses.”
The GAO says OSHA is measuring activities conducted (outputs), not effectiveness (outcomes).
And this circles back to the comparison between the federal and state programs. “OSHA’s difficulty in demonstrating the effectiveness of its enforcement efforts has affected its ability to convince states to implement enforcement changes OSHA believes will result in better outcomes.”
OSHA defends its practices
In a letter responding to the GAO report, OSHA chief David Michaels noted that three recent academic studies show OSHA’s enforcement activities are associated with lower injury rates, number of injury claims and lost workdays.
Michaels’ letter also says, “OSHA agrees with the essence of the GAO’s recommendations, including your analysis and suggestions on how to better use out data.”
But OSHA also takes some exceptions to the GAO report. “OSHA is concerned that the draft report may overemphasize the significance of outcome measurements, such as injury and fatality rates, in determining the effectiveness of state safety and health programs.”
“Over-reliance on injury rates, therefore, would not adequately address the requirements of the [Occupational Safety and Health] Act,” that state-run programs be at least as effective as federal OSHA.
In other words, to fulfill what is required of it regarding state-run programs, federal OSHA is required to measure such things as number of inspections conducted.
Michaels says it’s been OSHA’s experience that injury rates over short periods of time may not be a reliable indicator of state-run program quality. However, the OSHA administrator’s letter goes on to note that injury and illness rates help measure the effects of OSHA enforcement over long periods.
Requirements of the OSH Act
Michaels’ point about having to fulfill what is required of federal OSHA in the OSH Act regarding state-run programs gets back to the narrower message of the GAO report: There are differences in how effectiveness of the federal and state programs are measured.
But, taking a look at the larger picture, here is what is stated at the beginning of the OSH Act of 1970:
“An Act to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women.”
No one will argue that the main purpose of the OSH Act is to reduce the number of worker fatalities, injuries and illnesses. And that’s the larger point of the GAO report: Measuring outputs (number of inspections, dollar amounts, etc.) isn’t enough. Outcomes (fewer injuries) must be measured as well to assure safe working conditions.
OSHA points to three recent research studies that back up the link between strict enforcement/penalties and fewer injuries. But the GAO report says, effectively, that OSHA hasn’t done a good enough job itself of making that connection as it measures its own effectiveness.
Until OSHA becomes more effective at making that connection, efforts by the current administration and Democrats in Congress to boost OSHA penalties through legislation will continue to go nowhere.
What do you make of the GAO report? Do you think there is enough evidence linking OSHA penalties to a reduction in injuries? Let us know what you think in the comments below.