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There’s an ongoing debate within the safety community about how regulations affect the economy, and whether some government regulations do more harm than good. Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN), who has suggested regulations would send U.S. jobs overseas, seemed to imply recently that regulations do not improve people’s livelihoods; rather, capitalism and companies taking risks do:

“The reason this country is great, however, is because entrepreneurs have been allowed to take risk for profit … the system that’s been proven throughout history to be the best one to raise the condition of all men. Not regulations about cantaloupes.”

Rokita was speaking at a Workforce Protections Subcommittee hearing (video below).

Given the recent outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes from cantaloupes and the multiple deaths that have resulted from it, I found the congressman’s comment to be in poor taste.

I don’t believe Rokita was inferring the listeria outbreak is not a serious issue – that would be an incredibly insensitive thing for anyone to say, let alone a public official. But his comment suggests that capitalism has bettered the lives of people in this country more than a regulating government.

The system of commerce we have set up allows for competition that benefits all people. When companies compete with one another, the consumer wins by having the options for better products and better prices.

Parallels can be drawn to occupational safety and health. A company that invests in safety will have fewer worker injuries and deaths, a more productive workplace and more cost savings than its competitor, prompting that second company to make safety advancements to stay competitive.

But this is not true in every instance. We have the Occupational Safety and Health Act, OSHA, and several other workplace and consumer protection agencies because, years ago, the free market wasn’t raising the conditions for everyone. It was failing, and people in this country wanted the government to do something.

And it did. Since the OSH Act was passed 40 years ago and the advent of federal workplace safety regulations, worker injuries, illnesses and deaths have declined dramatically. As one former compliance officer told me, such a decline would not be as dramatic without the threat of enforcement of regulations.

I think it is clear that a balance is needed – a vibrant, growing economy cannot exist when employers are filing paperwork over every paper cut. Likewise, working conditions cannot be improved in an environment where job hazards go unregulated.

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

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