Can a press release save lives?
No doubt about it. At least if it comes from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and it publicizes a serious violation of the occupational safety and health laws.
The tale begins in 2009, when OSHA initiated a new policy: If one of its inspections found sufficiently serious workplace safety violations (warranting a fine of at least $40,000), it would issue a press release, identifying the violator. According to David Michaels, the OSHA administrator at the time, press releases would be a form of “regulation of shaming.” Michaels’s hope was that the releases would have “educational and deterrent purposes for other companies in the same industry and geographic area.”
But hope is one thing. Reality is another. The Duke University economist Matthew Johnson has done a careful study of whether the 2009 policy actually had an impact. As it turns out, Michaels was right.
To see whether regulation by shaming actually works, Johnson adopted an ingenious, rigorous and somewhat complicated empirical strategy. To simplify, he looked at what happened in workplaces within the vicinity of a penalized workplace, asking just one key question: whether those near a workplace that was the subject of a press release showed comparatively fewer violations in the period after the issuance of the release. In other words, Johnson tested whether the issuance of a press release, identifying worker-safety violations by a company in a specific area, reduced the level of worker safety violations by other companies in that same area.
Johnson found that press releases had a large impact. Specifically, a press release produced a 73 percent reduction in violations at similar workplaces within a five-kilometer radius. For workplaces within a 10-kilometer radius, the reduction was about 36 percent — and it remained around 30 percent for workplaces within a radius of 50 kilometers.
That’s major. Johnson found that to produce a similar deterrent effect, OSHA would have had to conduct 210 inspections. If officials are trying to get the biggest bang for the buck, a press release is a lot more appealing than a major uptick in inspections.
Johnson also found that the reduction in violations was accompanied by a decrease in workplace injuries and almost certainly in deaths. He found strong evidence that press releases reduce violations that are likely to result in the most serious accidents, though he concluded that he lacked the evidence to specify exactly how many fatal ones.
Why are press releases so effective? One answer points to the role of the media. Johnson found that the deterrent effect of press releases is amplified when they get significant local news coverage. Facilities receive a loud signal after learning that if they violate the law, they might well find themselves on the receiving end of terrible publicity. For that reason, they take strong steps to comply.
Johnson also found that strong labor unions play an important role. The major deterrent effect of press releases can be found in facilities having such unions — which apparently respond by making safety-related demands on their employers.
Unfortunately, the administration of President Donald Trump discontinued OSHA’s press-release policy in 2017. Johnson’s evidence shows that it should be restored as soon as possible. As Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, sunlight is “the best of disinfectants.”
For federal, state, and local regulators, there are broader implications. As Johnson noted, regulators typically rely on inspections and fines to deter violations. But in an era in which agency resources are limited and often declining, enforcement actions have to be scaled back – which means that public officials should be working hard to identify low-cost methods of deterrence.
Whether the issue involves immigration, crime, food safety, air pollution or civil rights, press releases might be able to do a great deal of good.
For regulators in the U.S. and elsewhere, here’s a low-cost proposal for 2020, one that should cut across partisan divides: In areas that involve public health and safety, agencies should issue press releases to publicize serious violations of the law, not to add to existing punishments, but to reduce the likelihood of future violations by others. It’s a cheap way to increase compliance with the law – and potentially to save lives.
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