- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001

In recent years, the American workplace has become safer than ever. Your chance of dying on the job today is one-third what it was just 20 years ago. Occupational injuries in the private sector have declined by 29 percent since 1980. These facts led the Clinton administration to the obvious conclusion: There's a crisis!

In November, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration responded to this emergency by imposing broad new regulations on employers. The rules rest on the theory there is an epidemic of ergonomic ailments injuries and illnesses caused by repetitive motion that can be cured only by federal intervention.

OSHA would require companies to make all sorts of physical changes in their workplaces if just one employee reports a backache, stiff neck or sore wrist that he thinks is job-related. OSHA estimates the cost of the mandate at $4.5 billion in the first year, but the government's Small Business Administration says it "could be anywhere from 2.5 to 15 times higher."

The evidence of need was not persuasive to the Bush administration or to Congress, which recently voted to scrap the rules. The action promptly drew howls from organized labor and its allies, such as Sen. Edward Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, who said it was "anti-worker, anti-woman and anti-family." "Disgraceful," echoed AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who called the vote an "assault on worker safety."

From that sort of talk, you would never guess that the problem in question is shrinking, not growing. Between 1992 and 1997, the number of ergonomic injuries dropped by 22 percent. This corresponds with the long-standing trend of workplaces getting less and less dangerous to the point that maybe we all ought to start sleeping there. The National Safety Council reports the average worker is eight times safer on the job than off the job.

The causes of the ailments targeted by OSHA are not terribly well understood. Some Wal-Mart stores have tried to protect against back injuries by requiring workers who do a lot of lifting to wear supportive back belts. But a report published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association says workers who wore the belts were just as likely to incur injuries or back pain as workers who didn't.

It turns out that tracing the source of worker ailments is not always easy. A study of back problems at Boeing found you couldn't predict which workers would have back problems based on the type of work they did. The best predictor of back trouble was job satisfaction with unhappy workers more prone to discomfort. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health was surprised to find that at one local telephone company, longer hours at typing jobs led to fewer physical complaints, not more.

Robert Hahn, director of the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies in Washington, says the OSHA regulations were based on "junk science." A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences noted that "the connection between the workplace and these disorders is complex, partly because of the individual characteristics of workers such as age, gender and lifestyle." So much of the expense involved in implementing the rules might have gone to waste.

To the extent a problem exists, there is no reason to think federal regulation is needed to solve it. Even heartless employers have powerful reasons to eliminate on-the-job hazards. The most conspicuous one is that occupational injuries consume money in lost productivity, training, medical expenses, recruiting and the like. The National Safety Council says that when an employee suffers a disabling injury, the employer can normally expect to take a $28,000 hit.

The economic incentives don't end there. Suppose there are two jobs that are identical except that one is more dangerous. Workers will prefer the safer job and will choose the riskier one only if it pays better. Companies can save money on wages if they reduce workplace dangers and that's exactly what they've been doing.

But lumberjacks will always die younger, on average, than florists. Some hazards can't be eliminated at a reasonable cost. In those cases, employers pay higher wages to attract employees. Workers who are averse to risk will go elsewhere, leaving the job to those who prefer money to safety. It may seem callous to force people to weigh dollars against health, but all of us do that every day when we buy any car that is not a Volvo, put off a visit to the doctor, or climb a ladder to clean the gutters instead of hiring someone to do it.

Supporters of more regulation think the only way to safer workplaces is for OSHA to intervene. But experience suggests employers and employees can handle that task just fine on their own.

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