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CATO Institute Says No to OSHA and Ergonomics Regulations

According to the CATO Institute, a non-profit, nonpartisan public policy research foundation,

[The U.S.] Congress should shut down [OSHA] or, failing that, at least

  • reduce OSHA’s enforcement budget,
  • bar OSHA ergonomics regulations, and
  • repeal OSHA’s so-called general duty clause that allows inspectors to enforce regulations that are not published or are poorly understood by enterprises.

Does this sound extreme? To many Americans, it doesn’t, and CATO represents a growing number who want U.S. policy to be more in line with the principles of limited government, individual liberty, and peace. In their minds, OSHA represents the extreme, and OSHA’s proposed ergonomics regulations are a prime example of government going way too far.

To bolster their position, CATO notes that OSHA does not noticeably increase worker safety. Their analysis of workplace injuries and illnesses, excluding fatalities, found no downward trend in either the total frequency of workplace injuries or the frequency of injuries resulting in at least one lost workday since OSHA’s inception in 1970. There has been a declining trend in workplace fatalities, but that goes as far back as the 1930’s, and though the declining fatality trend continued after 1970, OSHA had no appreciable impact on that trend. CATO believes the declining workplace death rates are the result not of OSHA, but from improvements in safety technology and changes in the distribution of occupational labor away from more dangerous manufacturing type work to white-collar service jobs.

In making their case against an ergonomics regulation, CATO points to three failed OSHA-initiated legal cases.

  • In a 1995 action against Beverly Enterprises, OSHA did not establish that lifting necessarily causes back injuries.
  • In a 1998 case against Dayton Tire, court experts representing OSHA presented different opinions about what made a job hazardous and what remedies would reduce those hazards. Further, the experts failed to account for other possible causes of worker ailments, such as non-work activities and prior injuries. The Judge claimed OSHAs methods to be “junk science” by the standards established in the Supreme Court’s 1993 Daubert decision.
  • In a 1997 case against Pepperidge Farm, OSHA was unable to demonstrate that certain recommended control measures were a feasible and effective means with which to reduce musculoskeletal disorders at a worksite.

According to CATO, all Americans want safe jobs and communities, but people are generally unwilling to accept the severe restrictions on personal freedoms, nor the monumental costs needed to chase the impossible dream of eliminating all risks to personal heath and safety. Further, an attempt to eliminate one risk often creates other risks that can be worse than the original.

There are far more compelling market forces that drive workplace health and safety than the threat of OSHA citations, CATO says. State-run workers’ compensation insurance programs, though in need of reform, are currently the most influential public attempt to promote workplace safety. With insurance premiums tied to workplace safety records, increased injury rates are reflected in higher premiums, encouraging firms to establish safer and healthier work environments. CATO identifies other market forces that result in safety improvements, including fewer work stoppages and lower wage scales for safer jobs. In the end, companies weigh the benefits of improved safety against the costs of improving safety. Currently, OSHA citations are not a significant deterrent, and they never will be.

Rather than waste more resources on OSHA, CATO favors abolishing, or at least restricting OSHA’s budgets and regulatory authority, and pursuing the following goals as the proper means to achieve real, long lasting workplace safety:

  • Allow state and local officials to use their own means to ensure worker safety.
  • State policymakers should work to reform their workers’ compensation insurance policies to allow market forces to fully operate.
  • State policymakers should review and reform their tort law systems to allow workers to seek redress from employers in true cases of employer negligence and endangerment.

More about the CATO Institute: Founded in 1977, the Cato Institute is a nonpartisan public policy research foundation headquartered in Washington, D.C. The Institute is named for Cato’s Letters, libertarian pamphlets that helped lay the philosophical foundation for the American Revolution. For more information, visit