Planned federal safety inspections can reduce workplace injuries later, but only if the visit yields penalties that hit employers in the wallet, new research finds.
The study is the second in recent weeks to link inspections by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to a subsequent decrease in injuries—at least, for a while.
|The study focused on Pennsylvania companies, but the results are generalizable to the 29 states where federal OSHA directly enforces standards.|
Furthermore, the new research shows an even greater immediate post-inspection safety impact than a similar study that looked at trends from 1979 to 1998.
“Inspections with penalties reduced injuries by an average of 19% to 24% annually in the two years following the inspection,” according to “A New Estimate of the Impact of OSHA Inspections on Manufacturing Injury Rates, 1998–2005,” published May 7 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
The team linked injury data from the Pennsylvania workers’ compensation program to data from unemployment compensation records, to calculate lost-time rates for single-establishment manufacturing firms. It then linked those rates to OSHA inspection findings.
The study also reviewed similar research that linked OSHA inspections to a decline in lost workday injuries from 1979 to 1998.
According to the new study, that connection not only continued, but strengthened.
“[It] appears that the effectiveness of inspections increased in the period beginning in 1998,” wrote the team, led by researchers from the Pittsburgh-based RAND Corp.
The results focused on firms with between 20 and 250 employees; no similar connection could be determined for smaller or larger companies.
Nevertheless, the authors say, “These findings should be generalizable to the 29 states where federal OSHA directly enforces standards. They suggest that the impact of inspections has increased from the 1990s.”
Show Them the Money
Looking at programmed (regularly scheduled) inspections, the team found that workplace injury rates fell after—and only after—a fine was imposed for health or safety violations.
Companies that received fines after a programmed inspection reported, on average, a 10.3 percent drop in their injury rate in each of the two years after the inspection.
On the other hand, “programmed inspections without a penalty had no significant impact,” the authors report.
The Power of Complaints
Unlike scheduled inspections, however, OSHA visits triggered by employee complaints showed a slightly different twist.
Inspections sparked by complaints, which “represent an exercise of employee influence,” actually led to a marginal increase in injury rates for the next year if no fine was imposed, the team found.
That may be because the employer in such cases is “responding more” to the employee’s show of influence “than to the findings of the compliance officer,” the authors say.
After the initial bump, however, the injury rate in such companies tended to decline in the second year, whether or not a fine had been imposed.
The team also looked at the effect of OSHA’s Site-Specific Targeting program, which began in April 1999. That program focuses inspections on workplaces in high-risk industries (a list that is updated annually). Maybe those inspections, the team thought, yielded the greater drop in injury rates.
Not so, however. The team found no greater injury reduction after SST inspections and, in fact, suggested that OSHA retool the program to focus on individual employers with poor safety records, rather than blanketing high-risk industries.
“If the theory is that high [injury] rates indicate firms with lax safety efforts, then this new approach would do a better job than the current one which, in some sense, punishes firms for being in a high injury-rate industry,” the article says.
Finally, the team noted, the impact of any inspection—with or without penalties—does not last forever.
The study, like others before, found that the injury reduction lasted about two years, before business as usual returned.
Finding ways to prolong “the period of impact” would make for useful future research, the team says.