March 22, 2017

Economics Professor Tom Kniesner Weighs in on OSHA Debate

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With expectations that the federal agency overseeing worker safety will shift from enforcement to compliance under the Trump administration, critics and proponents of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are likely to renew a decades-long debate: Does OSHA enforcement help decrease workplace injuries?

According to School of Social Science, Policy & Evaluation economics Professor Tom Kniesner, the question is moot; OSHA enforcement doesn’t really lead to results.

Workers’ compensation—not enforcement—provides a better system for promoting safety in the workplace, he recently told workers’ compensation media outlet WorkCompCentral.

“Why workers’ comp does a better job is because it’s like a tax on injuries and illnesses and lets [employers] figure out how to reduce them,” Kniesner said.

Photo of Professor of Economics Tom Kniesner
Professor of Economics Tom Kniesner

OSHA inspections, on the other hand, are too sporadic, the fines are too low, and some of the key causes of worker death—vehicle accidents and violence by coworkers—are not well regulated by the agency, he said.

Debate over OSHA’s future comes at a time when the top leadership role at the Department of Labor has yet to be confirmed and sworn into office. President Donald Trump’s choice for labor secretary, Andre Puzder, the CEO of the company that owns the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast food chains, withdrew his nomination last month.

Some research has found that OSHA inspections promote safety, while others have found no benefit or even negative outcomes.

But even if OSHA shifts its focus from enforcement to compliance, Kniesner said another variable to consider is how states with their own OSHA programs will respond. Twenty-two states or territories have OSHA-approved state plans that cover both private- and public-sector workers. The state programs must follow certain OSHA requirements, but also have some latitude in how they operate, he said.

Kniesner’s research interests include labor economics, health economics, and econometrics. His academic work has clarified the level and distribution of the economic benefits of life-saving government regulations used in policymaking and policy implementation.