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Barab: Scare people into doing the right thing

July 18, 2011

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What’s part of OSHA’s plan to convince employers to comply with safety regulations? Threaten them with bad publicity.

During a July 13 speech at the NIOSH-sponsored National Occupational Research Agenda Symposium in Cincinnati, assistant OSHA administrator Jordan Barab said the idea of “shaming” employers is something the agency is trying to do more often.

“When an employer is found to be especially willfully negligent of the law, we make sure that is publicized,” he said.

Prior to the current administration, a threshold needed to be reached on the amount of fines before a press release was issued – about $80,000. But now, that threshold has been lowered and OSHA is issuing more press releases, Barab said.

As a journalist, I use press releases to track trends – what violations are occurring, where OSHA is placing its resources, what types of fines the agency is handing out, etc. So I certainly find them useful. But just how useful are they in the manner Barab describes – as an incentive to keep workplaces safe?

According to Barab, employers don’t want their company names publicized in such a manner, so they consult with industry attorneys and consultants on how to avoid that fate. “The response to that, almost always, is ‘make sure your workplace is safe,’” Barab said.

It’s a convincing tactic. I can imagine most employers don’t want publicity that highlights alleged workplace safety violations, regardless of where that article appears, be it the front page of the The New York Times or a small page-4 brief in The Paducah Sun.

But even Barab openly admitted that few if any studies have looked into the effectiveness of penalties, let alone the effectiveness of publicizing penalties. He called on those attending the NORA Symposium to help gather such information so OSHA and the administration could use the data to answer the question of effectiveness.

Until that data comes out, though, what do you think? Does the threat of news coverage on OSHA citations help convince other employers to try harder in creating a safer working environment? Or is this “shaming,” as Barab called it, simply gloating without any real effect?

Use the comment section below; I’d love to read your thoughts.

The opinions expressed in "Washington Wire" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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