OSHA Enforcement vs. Compliance Assistance: Myth vs. Fact

OSHA: Enforcement vs. Compliance AssistanceOne of the most persistent — and distorted — arguments in the health and safety community is about how best to protect workers:  enforcement or compliance assistance? Republicans constantly accuse Democrats of ignoring the benefits of cooperation with employers and accuse them of focusing exclusively on enforcement and confrontation.

That accusation is demonstrably false, but to a certain extent the entire argument is bogus: both Democratic and Republican administrations have supported OSHA’s enforcement and compliance assistance programs, although they tend to balance them differently. The Bush administration, for example, thought that the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) was OSHA’s future, while the Obama administration sought to strengthen OSHA’s enforcement program.  But Bush enforced the law, and Obama supported compliance assistance and VPP.

The problem, as I describe in my BNA Article “Practitioner Insights: Taking a Carrot or Stick Approach to Worker Safety,”  is that this discussion has been weaponized by Republican lawmakers and the business community as part of their fight against regulation, and specifically their goal of weakening OSHA enforcement and standard-setting. The facts are these:  There is certainly good scientific evidence that strong enforcement protects workers.  The evidence for compliance assistance is not so good. Depending on the situation, the Obama administration supported strong enforcement, and where appropriate, robust cooperation, including the VPP program where the emphasis was rightly on the integrity of the program, rather than its size.

Meanwhile, the Republicans’ anti-regulatory, anti-OSHA, anti worker safety campaigns are based on a number of myths, which I discuss in the article:

MYTHS

  • Compliance Assistance Is About Prevention; Enforcement About Reaction
  • Compliance Assistance Is About Cooperation; Enforcement About Confrontation
  • Obama Administration Was All Enforcement, Instead of Compliance Assistance
  • Obama Administration Attempted to Weaken VPP Program (and more on that here.)
  • VPP Is a More Effective Alternative to Enforcement
  • Small Businesses Need Warnings, Not Enforcement

Read the article and use it next time you get dragged into a discussion about cooperation vs. confrontation.  And don’t fall for any of the same old tired myths.

One note: This article was written before House Republicans voted to slash OSHA’s enforcement budget. Trump’s budget proposal had held the OSHA enforcement budget flat.  The history of Republicans emphasizing compliance assistance while also supporting enforcement may have come to a sorry end.

Enforcement OSHA Voluntary Protection Programs

3 Comments

  1. Good article. I find it intriguing tat conservatives and the business community (some if not many) seem fond of arguing issues without the benefit of facts and peer reviewed studies to back up their arguments. I guess many of them were never on a debating team. Jocks just have to be bigger and louder to make winning points.

    Both OSHA and the EPA remain effective “boogiemen” to use to convince recalcitrant managers to do what is already in everybody’s best interests anyway. Unfortunately, many can’t see past the end of their quarterly balance sheet. Keep speaking out.

    1. That’s mostly true (they do go out to VPP sites, but that isn’t exactly enforcement.) They play an important role, but what OSHA needs is more inspectors, not more CAS’s.

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