Earlier this month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a regulation that would require firms to submit data (that they already are required to collect) on worker injuries and illnesses to OSHA. The agency plans to create a website that will display the safety records of firms. The regulation applies only to establishments with more than 250 employees.
While OSHA has many regulations requiring safe conditions in the workplace, their ability to enforce these regulations is limited. This means that protection of workers depends on the goodwill of firms and on the ability of workers and the public to monitor employers. The vast majority of employers actively want to protect their workers, but there will always be some who are willing to take risks and cut corners at the expense of worker safety.
By making the injury records of firms public, OSHA hopes to increase oversight by the public and by workers. Firms with bad safety records that are publicly disclosed will find it harder to recruit talented employees. They will also face unwanted media attention. This disclosure, an example of the "nudging" popularized by Cass Sunstein, has the potential to create incentives for firms to improve safety without creating a burdensome regime of government interference.
And yet industry has voiced its opposition to this OSHA regulation. Some of the objections are process related — the Chamber of Commerce argues that OSHA did not follow the proper process in issuing the rule — but many of them are also related to the substance of the rule. The chamber argues that some reports of injuries and illnesses are false and that firms will now go through more costly investigations of worker claims.
Yes, some worker claims of injuries and illnesses are false. But there is at least at much evidence that workplace injuries are underreported as over-reported. And, holding up a regulation like this until reporting is perfect is nonsensical. That would be like making it harder for people to vote because of a tiny chance of voter fraud, and no one in their right mind would do that ... oh, wait.
In all seriousness, the argument that the government shouldn't regulate until information is perfect is a long-used excuse to avoid regulations. As for the costs, they will largely be borne by firms that have something to hide rather than firms that recognize that they have good systems in place to protect workers and that reporting the occasional injury is not a horrible thing. Paul O'Neill, Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush and former Alcoa executive, has pointed out that diligent firms have little to fear from transparency.
Finally, it should be noted that this rule applies to injuries that are easily attributable to work. Long-term illnesses resulting from chemical exposure rarely if ever make their way on to OSHA reporting forms. Someone who dies from cancer five years after retirement because of a lifetime of exposure to chemicals simply "doesn't count" against the safety and health record of the firm. In light of the vast underreporting of this type of workplace-related illness, the requirement that firms publicly disclose those injuries and illnesses that occur at work seems like a small and eminently reasonable step.
This piece was corrected on May 31, 2016 at 4:55 p.m.
Shapiro is an associate professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School at Rutgers University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.