Study finds random inspections reduce the number of workplace injuries

Do random workplace inspections result in fewer injuries or are they just a burden on business? This question has largely gone unanswered. Over the years, some evidence has suggested that oversight by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration reduces on-the-job disabling injuries. Yet researchers have struggled to track the effectiveness of inspections when most are not completely random.

Earlier this year, a study published in Science showed random inspections improved safety without adding huge costs for employers.

Creating a control group

Because accidents and worker complaints prompt many inspections, it is hard to test the effect of random inspections. Various enforcement efforts can also skew injury report rates. In the 1980's, for example, OSHA fined several manufacturers for incomplete documentation. Following the fines, reports of injuries in similar plants increased. In this timeframe, it would have appeared that more inspections lead to more injuries.

For an objective picture of the affect of unannounced inspections on the number of injuries, Michael Toffel, an environmental management expert at Harvard Business School, looked to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which completes many random inspections. After a review of inspection data from 1996 to 2006, he compiled matched pairs across various industries. This method allowed Toffel to compare workplaces randomly inspected with a control group (those subject to inspection, but not actually inspected). The method was novel and similar to the placebo group in a trial of a new drug.

Then he reviewed workers' compensation claims and injury reports to find injury and illness rates. Companies subjected to random inspections had 9 percent fewer injuries in the four years following the inspection. The costs of injuries fell about 26 percent over the same period for the companies who received random inspections.

Information collected on the financial strength of the employers showed that inspections had no effect on employment, sales, total earnings, or survival of the employers.

OSHA inspections and prioritization

Of the more than 100 million workplaces in the United States, OSHA is responsible for inspecting approximately 7 million. OSHA inspects less than one percent of these workplaces, and will complete about 41,000 inspections this year.

OSHA inspection priority is categorized as follows:

  • Imminent danger - these inspections take place when there is a reasonable certainty danger exists that could cause injury or death.
  • Catastrophic injuries and fatal accidents - inspections take place after a serious injury or death to investigate the cause of the accident.
  • Employee complaints - a report of an unsafe working situation will also prompt an inspection.
  • Programmed inspections - these inspections target high-risk industries and usually review factors such as past injury rates and previous citations.

There is also room for random selection where the agency chooses a business location based on random Standard Industry Classification code selection, however, OSHA random inspections fall toward the bottom of the priority list. With the agency limitations further research may pinpoint which companies or industries benefit from safety regulation the most.

While OSHA random inspections reduce the number of on-the-job injuries, accidents resulting in severe injuries will still occur. After a workplace injury, contact an experienced Atlanta workers' compensation attorney. Make sure that you understand your rights before accepting any offered settlement.