OSHA ‘Nudges’ Companies to Improve Workplace Safety with Scarlet Letter

A recently introduced Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation is stirring up controversy between Big Business and government. Starting in August, companies in certain high-hazard industries will have to publicly reveal the number of workplace injuries, illnesses, and deaths suffered by their employees. According to OSHA, the new rule will improve workplace safety and prevent future injuries from occurring. Critics, though, argue the law will only bring shame and so-called “frivolous lawsuits” to undeserving companies.

Under the new requirement, employers will be forced to submit reports to OSHA that discloses injury and illness data. OSHA will then post the information on the agency’s website, www.osha.gov.

According to Dr. David Michaels, a top official at OSHA, behavioral economics suggests the new rule will encourage companies to take safety more seriously, and, as a result, the amount of workplace injuries will decrease. Michaels said in a press release:

“Since high injury rates are a sign of poor management, no employer wants to be seen publicly as operating a dangerous workplace. Our new reporting requirements will 'nudge' employers to prevent worker injuries and illnesses to demonstrate to investors, job seekers, customers and the public that they operate safe and well-managed facilities.”

Michaels also believes the new requirement will provide an abundance of useful information that will help OSHA create more effective policies. “Access to injury data… will enable ‘big-data’ researchers to apply their skills and make workplaces safer,” Michaels said.

Workplace Injuries: An Unfortunate Reoccurrence

Each year, millions of American workers are injured while on the job. To be exact, the Labor Department states that approximately 3 million workplace injuries and illnesses are reported annually. That corresponds to an estimated 3.2 cases occurring per every 100 full-time workers.

In 2014, 4,679 workers were tragically killed while working, according to an OSHA report. That amounts to 90 workplace deaths a week, or 13 every single day. The largest industry to contribute to this grisly statistic?

Construction. In 2014, 874 American construction workers were killed as they were working, or approximately one-fifth of the national total of workplace fatalities.

Although death is often a result of construction’s “Big 4” – falls, falling objects, electrocution, caught in-between – construction work is also extremely dangerous because of the high probability of exposure to hazardous materials. When a building is constructed, renovated, or demolished, the workers getting the job done are exposed to thousands of different chemicals and substances, many of which are toxic. Asbestos is one of these hazards – an extraordinarily deadly material that construction workers deal with often.

According to OSHA, 1.3 million construction and general industry workers are exposed to asbestos every year. Because asbestos has a typical latency period of 20 - 50 years (meaning victims don’t experience the fatal symptoms until decades after exposure), most of the construction workers being injured by asbestos don’t even realize it when it’s happening. For this reason, OSHA’s figures on construction casualties represent only a fraction of the true amount of men and women being injured or killed because of their jobs.

The Corporations Cry Foul

So, given the surprising and horrifying extent of unsafe working conditions Americans endure, from asbestos and all of the other lethal threats lurking on the job site, wouldn’t everyone be happy about a new policy that will increase safety and save American lives?

Amazingly, no.

Since being announced, OSHA’s new regulation has come under attack by business groups and large corporations. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an organization well-known for its anti-union agenda, has been especially vocal in criticizing OSHA’s new rule. Randy Johnson, a top official at the Chamber, believes plaintiffs could take advantage of the OSHA data to win more lawsuits. “Instead of improving workplace safety,” Johnson said, “this will only create a new filing requirement that will lead to sensitive employer data being published without context or explanation.”

Critics also believe the new law will give competitors undue access to business information that would typically remain confidential.

Good News for America’s Workers

The arguments against OSHA’s new bill come, perhaps unsurprisingly, from a group typically bent on maximizing corporate profits instead of protecting workers. For decades, the Chamber has promoted the interests of the asbestos industry, fighting hard to suppress the rights of sick and dying asbestos victims.

Fortunately, starting in August, if companies expose their employees to asbestos or perpetrate any other workplace injustices, they’ll be forced to “wear the scarlet letter” so everyone knows the shameful things they’ve done. Hopefully this will soon produce a decrease in the number of workers being injured and/or killed while working. Although many corporations feel needlessly policed, for America’s workers and their loved ones, OSHA’s announcement is indeed a reason for joy and a cause for hope.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: December 29, 2017