In many industries, such as construction, transportation, warehousing and health care, the workplace is dangerous. In 2018 alone, 5,250 workers died on the job.
To protect workers from death or injury, Congress established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – better known as OSHA – in 1970, to assure “so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions.”
OSHA inspections have successfully improved workers’ physical safety. A 2012 randomized study found that OSHA inspections reduce the number of injuries leading to workers’ compensation claims by around 9% and lower the medical expenses and wage replacement paid from those claims by 26%.
But the number of federal OSHA inspectors fell to a low of 875 in 2019, down from a high of 1,469 in 1980.
The decrease in the number of inspectors coincided with an increase in the number of workplaces that need to be protected, from 4.5 million in 1980 to more than 8.1 million today. That means that there were 3,063 workplaces for each OSHA inspector in 1980. Today, the number is 9,286, an increase of more than 300%.
Effective enforcement requires workplaces to increase compliance with safety and health standards and change practices that can lead to fatalities and serious injuries.
Overburdening inspectors reduces OSHA’s ability to find and remediate safety violations, such as inadequate protections against slips and falls, which can be a big cause of workplace injuries and fatalities.
It also reduces the incentives presented by deterrence. When businesses know they’re not likely to be inspected, they are less likely to devote resources to safe workplaces.
Reducing the number of OSHA inspectors puts more workers in danger of physical harm on the job.
David Weil is a professor of economics at Brandeis University