Safety Harnesses and the Benefits of Regulation

In the new executive order, which Rena Steinzor wrote about yesterday, President Obama stated that agencies must "propose or adopt a regulation only upon a reasoned determination that its benefits justify its costs." This isn't a revolutionary requirement; public-health agencies are already required to demonstrate cost-effectiveness of proposed regulations. For instance, when Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently revised its crane and derrick standard, it estimated the annualized costs of implementing the rule to be $154 million and the benefits - in the form of 22 lives saved, 175 injuries prevented, and $7 million in property damage averted each year - to be $209 million.

But there's a difference between agency estimates published in the Federal Register and public awareness of the lives saved and injuries averted.

In remarks delivered yesterday at Public Citizen, OSHA head David Michaels gave one recent and vivid example of the benefits of workplace fall-protection requirements: a 25-year-old worker who fell while doing repairs on a residential tower in Secaucus, New Jersey - and was saved by his safety harness. (According to this news account, the worker fell at least six stories and suffered a head injury, but was "alert, talkative, and in guarded condition.") In such a near miss situation, I'm sure the worker was overwhelmed with relief that he'd been wearing the harness. He may even have had a few moments of gratitude for OSHA and its workplace-safety requirements.

Most of us don't notice disasters averted, though. We rarely take a moment to appreciate it when we're not wracked with some terrible bacterial illness from contaminated food or water, or not suffering from disabling injuries caused by unsafe buildings, cars, or workplaces. Most of us don't have moments when we're dangling from a safety harness and feeling lucky to be alive. But when we hear people complain about the costs of regulations, we should also think about how those rules might be making our lives longer and healthier.

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Well said Liz. Those who are opposed to worker safety and environmental regulations are quick to talk about the potential costs, but dismiss the benefits.

I've often wondered this about the rulemaking process. When companies or their trade associations submit comments to an agency like OSHA, do they overestimate how much it will cost to comply? "We're going to have to buy new equipment, spend money to train employees, etc." But, when a rule comes out (in OSHA's case, a rarity) are companies astute at identifying the most cost-effective way to comply? For example, rather than their assertion that they were going to have to buy new equipment, their employees figured out a way to retrofit the old equipment at one-fifth the cost?

By Celeste Monforton (not verified) on 21 Jan 2011 #permalink

Why are we still arguing over whether or not it is ok to kill workers? Is it acceptable to allow a family provider go to work and come home maimed or not at all? I get so frustrated with this fight, it is black and white, and there are no gray areas.

The only tactic I have seen so far is a giant mind cloud, scare the companies with dollar signs, panic the public with job loss and label the lost as casualties.

Maybe next time we should ship them body bags and toe tags for every worker lost in a year.

A construction worker who falls six stories is not "saved by his safety harness", because he's not using it properly. He's saved by blind, dumb luck.