Regulation Hanging By A Thread

Perverse incentives for safety.

The other day, your humble correspondent and family enjoyed the somewhat dubious pleasures of a regional amusement park which shall remain nameless for reasons which will quickly become apparent.

If you don't want to waste half your day standing in line at a place like this, it's best to get an early start and show up as soon as the doors open.  The big crowds trickle in throughout the day, but usually the first few hours are relatively empty and line-free.  So the opening bell - yes, literally, they rang a bell to open the park - found us front and center.

We were there and ready to go - but they weren't.  Only a handful of the rides were operating; the rest were still undergoing their required pre-opening inspections.

Now this is by no means a bad idea.  We are all in favor of not getting killed in an amusement-park ride, and anything dealing with thousands of pounds moving at 60 mph needs thoroughgoing engineering oversight.

Which raises the question: who watches the watchers?  There's a meshwork of local, state, and government agencies that regulate amusement parks and their employees, but OSHA is supposed to concern itself with the safety of those who are doing the actual work.

Perhaps it's a mercy that OSHA doesn't actually have enough employees to inspect everywhere all the time; most places of work can go years or even decades without seeing a meddling Fed.  Nobody likes feeling irrelevant, though, and for those unlucky places which do get visited, the bureaucrats generally try to make their presence felt with a heartstopping fine.

It's fortunate that there were no OSHA inspectors present with us that day, at least not on-duty ones.  While we waited patiently for one ride to open, we saw another in the throes of testing and safety checks.  They were most thorough, indeed: one worker climbed five stories up in the air on an open ladder to check the main axle of the swinging ride.

That's a problem: he wasn't wearing a safety harness.  Or more precisely, he was wearing one, but it wasn't hooked to anything.  If he had lost his grip and fallen off the ladder, he would have been one more multicolored stain on the pavement beneath.

The way it's supposed to work is that you clip a lead on the harness to something solid, like the ladder rungs.  You climb up a few feet; then you clip another safety lead further up the ladder, unclip the one that's now below you, and continue on in like manner.

As you can imagine, this makes the trip take about ten times as long.  Many experienced workers simply don't bother, having confidence in their ladder-climbing abilities.

Is this wise?  Well, I certainly wouldn't ever try it - but then, you're not likely to find me climbing that sort of ladder even with a full safety harness, and a fireman's net underneath to boot.

But for someone who makes the trip each and every day - well, shouldn't they have the right to make their own judgment call?

The fact is that they don't, but they don't pay the price.  According to a construction engineer standing in line next to us, if OSHA happened to turn up and see these unsafe practices, there'd be a fine of a few thousand dollars for everyone found not wearing proper safety equipment - payable by the company employing him.

What of the fellow who was wearing the safety equipment but wasn't using it?  Ah, but OSHA has an answer: a fine of several tens of thousands.

In other words: if you're the employer, you're better off by far simply not paying to buy safety equipment, than having it around if your people aren't going to use it.

Now, not every company will be so heartless, particularly the small ones, run by lifers who like to think that they think of their employees as family, but don't have the resources of a Disney to cross every T and dot every I.

No, it won't be a giant corporation that gets hammered by OSHA; they have battalions of lawyers, experts in the fine details of regulation, and elaborate training systems.  It won't be the small shysters either; they'll slide through, or play the bankruptcy shell game if it comes to that.  It'll be the semi-successful but struggling ones in the middle that get hit the hardest, those who deserve it the least and can afford the fine not at all.

The left likes to complain about inequality in personal income.  This is a genuine problem, and not the smallest cause is the fact that government misregulation is causing the same gap to appear in corporate income.  There are giant, enormously wealthy and powerful corporations; tiny, two-bit outfits too small to get noticed; and, increasingly, not a whole lot in the middle.

Solve that problem, and you'll go a long way to solving the other.  Meanwhile, we hope that "safety" inspector doesn't lose his grip on the way down.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments

Ironically enough, if you happened by the average town hall, public works depot, town dump, or park & rec building you'd also find a half dozen or so state OSHA violations. When a thicket of regulations is imposed on a politically riven bureaucracy shackled by union agreements, well, you can imagine stuff doesn't work.

October 13, 2015 5:55 AM
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