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Inspections with penalties help reduce workplace injuries: study

Awareness campaigns also effective, says IWH


(Canadian OH&S News) — A recent research paper by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) in Toronto has concluded that government inspections with potential orders and penalties are effective in motivating employers to improve health and safety standards.

Published on June 7 on the American Journal of Industrial Medicine’s website, “A systematic literature review of the effectiveness of occupational health and safety regulatory enforcement” resulted from an examination of 43 previous studies on occupational health and safety regulation. IWH promoted the study in an Aug. 30 press release, suggesting Labour Day as an ideal opportunity to consider the success of regulatory enforcement.

“One of the key takeaways from the paper is that when a labour inspector imposes an order on a workplace, the result of that is that the workplace is safer afterwards,” said IWH president Dr. Cam Mustard. Conversely, he added, “If a labour inspector visits a workplace and doesn’t write an order, it doesn’t seem like that has an impact.”

The research team, led by IWH senior scientist Dr. Emile Tompa, also found that awareness campaigns help to reduce workplace accidents. “It’s not that the enforcement of regulation works and nothing else works; it’s that enforcement is just one of the arrows in the quiver,” explained Dr. Mustard, citing Ontario’s current campaign about the risks of working at heights in construction as an example.

The goal of the project was to answer the question, “What is the strength of the evidence on the effectiveness of occupational health and safety policy levers in creating incentives for organizations to improve oh&s processes and outcomes?” Dr. Tompa and his colleagues searched through many English-language studies on the topic, published between 1990 and 2013, and selected 43 that met their quality criteria.

Dr. Mustard said that the research had been motivated by a common, long-running debate about whether it is appropriate for governments to regulate workplace safety.

“There will be stakeholders in every labour market who argue that all of this work by labour inspectors doesn’t make a difference, so you should stop doing it,” he said. “And then there’ll be stakeholders who say there’s nothing more important than having a labour inspector, like a policeman, come around and check around and make sure things are good. So it’s important to have an answer to this question.”

The former group of stakeholders, Dr. Mustard added, would suggest that occupational safety should be left up to the companies themselves. “The debate keeps going about, when is the government intruding into space that they don’t need to be there?” he said. “Employers, representatives of workers, they know what’s going on in their workplace. They know what the hazards are.”

In addition, fines for violating oh&s regulations can be very expensive. In Ontario, workplace fatalities often result in penalties higher than $100,000, Dr. Mustard noted. “But even a serious injury, like an amputation, a crush, an employer can be hit with a $50,000 or $60,000 fine,” he said.

In Ontario, there are approximately 350 labour inspectors inspecting around 250,000 workplaces, and a typical year includes about 80,000 field visits, resulting in about 140,000 orders, said Dr. Mustard. “An order can be a relatively easy thing to deal with, or it can be a complicated thing to deal with, on the part of the employer.”

But Dr. Tompa’s study classified an order as type of penalty — and determined that orders alone were effective in making workplaces safer.

“These findings reinforce the importance of regulators being out in the field and identifying, citing and penalizing noncompliant organizations,” said Dr. Tompa, as quoted in the IWH release.

“A systematic literature review of the effectiveness of occupational health and safety regulatory enforcement” is accessible online by purchase at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajim.22605/abstract.