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Perception versus outcome

October 1, 2011

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In this issue of Safety+Health, Senior Associate Editor Kyle W. Morrison takes a look at OSHA enforcement and whether large penalties provide an incentive for employers to create safer workplaces. The current administration certainly thinks so: In fiscal year 2010, OSHA issued a record number of penalties of $1 million or higher, and in 2011 the agency continues to hand out heavy fines. As Kyle notes in his article, assistant OSHA administrator Jordan Barab has publicly stated his opinion that using penalties and bad publicity to “shame” employers is an effective tool.

Barab’s approach has the potential to succeed in terms of scaring bad actors – but also could increase the negative perception some employers and safety professionals already have of OSHA. One example can be found in a response to a recent Safety+Health informal poll regarding the perceived adversarial relationship between the agency and employers. “From talking to many different employers in many different types of businesses, I am of the opinion that employers only hear about the citations and large penalties so they are convinced that OSHA is the enemy, even though they have never dealt with them,” the responder said.

No doubt OSHA has considered the potential backlash to its current stance and weighed it against possible positive outcomes. And an entity based on enforcement can never expect to rank high in a popularity contest so, for OSHA, perhaps creating safer workplaces – which, after all, is the agency’s mission – is enough.

The opinions expressed in “Editor’s Note” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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