W. Kip Viscusi

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Law & Contemporary Problems

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workplace safety, industrial safety, safety regulations, occupational safety, law enforcement


Labor and Employment Law | Law


For more than a decade, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been regulating the technology and work practices of employers. This governmental function is relatively new and is quite different from the usual governmental involvement in labor market policies. Some government efforts, such as job training and unemployment compensation, involve no direct impact on workplace operations, except that which may be induced indirectly through the incentives these policies generate. Even the minimum wage law does not directly lead to any governmental intrusion into the nature of the work relationship. In contrast, OSHA regulations specify what safety guards must be on machines, the characteristics of a safe ladder, the permissible levels of exposure to various hazardous substances, and situations where protective equipment must be worn. Such policies are certain to generate resistance from management and, to the extent that these regulations are not well formulated, they will provoke widespread controversy. Indeed, OSHA policies have done just this. Although some controversy was inevitable, OSHA has been the object of particularly harsh criticism because of the ineptness of much of its original standards design and the ineffectiveness of its enforcement policies. The enforcement policies, however, have undergone substantial alteration since the agency's creation. The original standards have been modified and new standards have been added. In particular, each of the last two presidential administrations has attempted to overhaul the enforcement policy through fundamental changes in the enforcement strategy. This article will explore how these policies have evolved as well as whether these changes are desirable. Section II focuses on issues of standards design, and sections III and IV focus on the efficacy of the enforcement process. The fundamental issue discussed in those sections is whether or not OSHA is now more effective in promoting safety than it was at the time of its creation. Section V provides an overall assessment on OSHA's performance and suggestions for further reforms in the agency's operations.



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