OSHA to withhold violation details: No more public “blaming and shaming”

Citations that OSHA inspectors issue to employers will no longer immediately be made available to the public on request, a change in policy that comes as the agency prepares to release dozens of citations stemming from virus-related inspections.

Instead, the agency is now requiring that a request be submitted under the Freedom of Information Act, a federal law that covers release of public documents. Such requests often take months before they are fulfilled and can lead to litigation before documents are produced.

OSHA’s new policy of no longer making its workplace safety violation citations public unless pressed by a Freedom of Information Act demand may be legal but the practice will hurt enforcement efforts and slow some court actions, according to critics.

“It’s very much not a good thing,” said Matthew Johnson, an associate professor at Duke University in North Carolina, who studied the affect releasing Occupational Safety and Health Administration violation details has on employers complying with safety regulations.

“I think the decision to make them not publicly available is contrary to the agency’s mission.

Johnson wrote a paper for the American Economic Review’s June, 2020 issue on “Regulation by Shaming: Deterrence Effects of Publicizing Violations of Workplace Safety and Health Laws.”

According to the article, publicizing firms’ socially undesirable actions may enhance firms’ incentives to avoid such actions. In 2009, OSHA began issuing press releases about facilities that violated safety and health regulations. Using quasi-random variation arising from a cutoff rule OSHA followed, Johnson found that publicizing a facility’s violations led other facilities to substantially improve their compliance and experience fewer occupational injuries. OSHA would need to conduct 210 additional inspections to achieve the same improvement in compliance as achieved with a single press release. Evidence suggests that employers improve compliance to avoid costly responses from workers.

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