Want to know if a job is safe? The government should let you find out
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Wouldn’t it make sense to be able to find out before applying for a job in a dangerous industry, which firms have a safe record, and which do not? The Obama administration thought the answer was “yes” and proposed a system to provide easy accessibility to workplace safety information via the web.

But the Trump administration apparently disagrees and announced last week an indefinite delay in a system to make this possible. This decision means higher risk of injury for many thousands of workers.

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For almost 50 years, employers in high hazard industries have been required by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to keep a log of the injuries suffered by their employees. These logs provide roadmaps of the causes of workplace injuries, allowing employers and workers to prevent more from occurring.

 

Last year, OSHA issued a rule requiring these employers to send a summary of the injury data they had already collected to OSHA by July 1 this year. The cost to employers would be minimal, since they would be sending in data they have already collected. At most, it would require a few minutes on a website. OSHA would then make the information available to the public on the internet.

OSHA had planned to use these data to better target its inspections and free consultation services for small businesses, enabling the agency to be more efficient and effective in its use of taxpayer’s money.

More importantly, OSHA was taking advantage of the widely recognized finding that transparency can be a powerful driver of behavior. Making injury data available to the public would likely “nudge” more dangerous employers to better protect their workers.

Why? First, employers compete to attract the best possible workers at prevailing wage rates. Although workers can find out about wages and benefits at prospective employers, information on safety is harder to come by. That’s a problem because there is tremendous variation in injury rates among employers, even in the same industries in the same towns.

Hospitals and nursing homes are among the most dangerous places to work, with injury rates higher than construction or coal mining. The chances of being hurt in one nursing home can be five times that of another facility in the same town. Just as consumers benefit from information regarding which cars have the better safety records, workers would benefit from ready access to information on injury risks in making job choices. Nursing homes with low injury rates become more attractive to workers while those with high rates face pressures to improve.

Injury rate transparency can work through a second path. Evidence shows that firms that focus on quality production generally have low injury rates because work processes are tightly managed. High injury rates can indicate poor management and lax standards. If consumers care about product or service quality, injury rate disclosure can be a proxy of operational quality. It’s not surprising then that many responsible employers, proud of their low injury rates, support safety transparency.

Returning to the nursing home case, high worker injury rates may reflect inadequate staffing or lack of investment in safety equipment like lifts to help patients get out of bed without injuring the worker or dropping the patient. If injury rates were public, more dangerous nursing homes would face greater pressure to improve safety performance not only to draw skilled job seekers, but to attract potential patients.

Research demonstrates that carefully crafted transparency policies can improve public safety. One compelling illustration of this is posting health inspection grades in restaurant windows. Consumers, eager to avoid food-borne illness, take these grades into account when deciding where to dine. After a grading program started in Los Angeles, revenues rose at establishments with high marks for food safety and fell at those with low ratings. More importantly, hospitalizations for food-borne illnesses decreased significantly.

Worker safety remains a huge challenge: 13 workers are killed daily in U.S. workplaces, and more than three million are seriously injured each year. Yet resources for protecting workers are extremely limited. Based on current staffing, it would take more than 150 years for OSHA to conduct a single inspection at each of the workplaces under its jurisdiction.

Our message to President Trump is simple: disclosure of injury rates could play a big role in making workplaces safer by creating incentives that lead employers to improve their safety performance voluntarily. That’s a commonsense way to save the lives and limbs of thousands of working people.

David Michaels is a professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health. David Weil is a professor at Boston University’s School of Business and a co-director of the Transparency Policy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. Both served at the U.S. Department of Labor under President Obama.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.