It’s Official: Random Inspections Improve Workplace Safety

Do government regulations in the workplace protect employees and consumers, or does the high cost of compliance merely drive companies to layoffs and bankruptcy? Proponents of each argument make their cases based on passion and little else since the available studies on the issue have been biased in one way or another. Now, a new study designed to produce more objective results has shown that random safety inspections do indeed improve safety without leading to burdensome expense or job loss. Some scientists say the randomized, controlled study design could be a model for testing whether proposed future regulations are likely to be effective.

Companies undergoing random inspections saw workplace injuries decline by about 9% in the 4 years following the date of inspection compared with injury reports during the same time period in firms that were not inspected, the researchers report online today in Science. The cost of the injuries reported—including medical treatment and missed work—fell by 26%. Using information from financial data provider Standard & Poor’s, the investigators found that the inspections had no effect on employment, total earnings, sales, or the survival of the company.

“Our study suggests that randomized inspections work as they’re meant to, improving safety while not undermining the company’s ability to do business,” says Toffel. “Now we’d like to get more data to see exactly how inspections reduce injuries, and to investigate what kinds of companies would get the most or least benefit from safety regulation.”

“The work is unusual in the strength of the study design,” says Jon Baron, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that seeks to increase government’s effectiveness based on rigorous evidence about what works. Baron notes that safety regulations are often put in place without scientifically credible evidence of their likely effects. Ideally, he says, all new government regulation should be subjected to similar randomized studies before being widely implemented.

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