For my write-up today on Clear and Present Dangers: A Conservative View of America’s Government (copyright 1975), I’ll use as my starting-point something that M. Stanton Evans says on page 76, in a footnote:
“A principal horror story in this department has been written by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—-OSHA for short. This agency has been given sweeping powers to fine businesses and in some cases shut them down for every kind of alleged violation concerning toilet seats, guard rails, stairways, ladders, garbage cans, window shades, doorways, furnaces, air conditioners, and countless other items. Employers are subject to surprise visits by compliance officers and may be heavily fined for alleged violations by their employe[e]s, even if these violations are concededly beyond the power of the employer to control. In pursuit of these objections, OSHA one day in 1971 published 375,000 words of rules and regulations in the Federal Register—-laws that small businesses all over America, most of whom have never heard of the Register, are supposed to know and adhere to on pain of instant punishment.”
I’ve heard and read similar stories. I myself support the existence of government regulations, for I think that there is a temptation among businesses to cut corners for financial gain. Yes, employers probably recognize that an unsafe business environment could result in financial harm for the business, since a person getting injured on the job would cost the business time and money in terms of retraining the injured worker’s replacement as well as workman’s comp. That’s why there are libertarians who believe that regulation is not necessary: they think that businesses will police themselves because the businesses have a financial motive (and other motives, such as public relations) to keep their work-environments safe. But is that realization enough to keep businesses on the straight and narrow? There are still businesses that try to cut corners, and this is so even though there are regulations. Why do they do so? Perhaps it’s because they want the short-term financial gains that come from disregarding regulations, and they don’t take seriously the possibility that an accident can occur.
But, although I believe that government regulations are necessary, I wonder if there can be a way to reform them. If, say, a toilet seat works fine for a business and has resulted in no injuries, yet it does not accord perfectly with OSHA regulations, is it really necessary to fine that business? And is there a way to educate small businesses about regulations?
Flexibility may have downsides, though. After all, it’s probably easier for OSHA to define what constitutes a safe toilet seat, than it is for OSHA to tolerate a number of conceptions of what constitutes a safe toilet seat. My hunch is that the former is more easily enforceable. But is there a way to fashion regulations that are not as oppressive?