The current need for enforcement of safety regulations

An NPR article reports on safety violations in Kentucky:

In December 2016, Pius “Gene” Hobbs was raking gravel with the Meade County public works crew when a dump truck backed over him. The driver then accelerated forward, hitting him a second time. Hobbs was crushed to death.

The sole eyewitness to the incident said that the dump truck’s backup beeper wasn’t audible at the noisy worksite. The Kentucky State Police trooper on the scene concurred. Hobbs might not have been able to hear the truck coming.

But when Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health arrived, hours later, the inspector tested the beeper on a quiet street and said it wasn’t a problem.

“These shortcomings are very concerning,” says Jordan Barab, a workplace safety expert who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health under President Barack Obama. “Identifying the causes of these incidents is … vitally important.” Otherwise, the employer doesn’t know how to avoid the next incident, he says.

Gene Hobbs’ case is not the exception. In fact, it’s the norm, according to a recent federal audit.

Kentucky is what’s known as a “state plan,” meaning the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has authorized it to run its own worker safety program.

Every year, federal OSHA conducts an audit of all 28 state plans to ensure they are “at least as effective” as the federal agency at identifying and preventing workplace hazards.

According to this year’s audit of Kentucky, which covered fiscal year 2017, KY OSH is not meeting that standard. In fact, federal OSHA identified more shortcomings in Kentucky’s program than any other state.

We know that we must have regulations and enforcement of those regulations to have safe environments. Left to our own choices, people tend to choose what appears to be the fastest and easiest options, not the most safe ones. For an interesting read on the history of safety regulation, see this article from the Department of Labor.

In 1898 the Wisconsin bureau reported that it was often difficult to find safety devices that did not reduce efficiency. Sanitary improvements and fire escapes were expensive, which led many employers to resist their adoption. Constant pressure and attention were needed to obtain compliance. Employers objected to the posting of laws in their establishments and some tore them down. The proprietor of a shoe factory with very poor fire escape routes showed “a disposition to defeat” an inspector’s request for more fire escapes, though he complied in the end. A cloak maker who was also found to have inadequate fire escapes went to the extreme of relocating his operation to avoid compliance. Such delays were not uncommon.

When an inspector found abominable conditions in the dipping rooms of a match factory — poorly ventilated rooms filled with poisonous fumes from the liquid phosphorus which made up the match heads — he tried to persuade the operators to make improvements. They objected because of the costs involved and the inspector “left without expecting to see the changes made.” When a machinery manufacturer equipped his ripsaws with guards after an inspection, a reinspection revealed that the employees had removed the guards.

Without regulation, we’ll be back to 1898 in short order.

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