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‘Enforcement works,’ Barab says

July 13, 2012

What’s one of the lessons to glean from OSHA action against BP in recent years? According to assistant OSHA administrator Jordan Barab, it’s that “enforcement works.” But does it?

During a teleconference with reporters July 12, Barab spoke highly of the safety turnaround at BP’s Texas City facility, where a 2005 explosion killed 15 workers, and explicitly said OSHA’s enforcement and penalties levied against the company contributed to that turnaround.

This turnaround comes after record penalties of $81 million were levied against the company in a 2009 follow-up inspection.

Before that inspection, however, the company had already been struck with the enforcement stick in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 explosion. Record penalties totaling more than $21 million (.pdf file) were issued six months after the blast.

To put it another way, the 2009 enforcement and inspections worked to improve safety at Texas City, but the 2005 enforcement and inspections apparently didn’t. If they had worked, there wouldn’t have been failure-to-abate penalties issued in 2009.

What’s the lesson here? Sometimes penalties work, and sometimes they don’t? Some studies support the idea that enforcement leads to safer workplaces, and I tend to believe most companies would prefer to avoid a fine if possible.

It’s also clear that some companies are able to treat OSHA penalties as the cost of doing business. For them, it would seem stronger enforcement tools are needed.

Is Barab right – does enforcement improve safety? Or does it depend on the company and the circumstances? I’d be curious to learn what you have to say in the comments below.

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

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