Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cost-benefit analysis in OHS

This past fall, the Wake Forest Law Review published an interesting essay on the political economy of occupational health and safety regulation in the United States entitled "Dying at work: Political discourse and occupational health and safety". Basically the essay examines the popularity of the cost-benefit analysis and how this is an inappropriate way to set public policy over injuries.

Applied to workplace injury, cost-benefit analysis basically says we should only prevent those injuries which cost less to prevent (costs mostly borne by the employer) than they do to incur (costs mostly borne by the worker). When the state accepts this approach, it is basically agreeing to allow one person (the employer) to injury another (an unspecified worker).

This blunt assessment of what cost-benefit analysis actually means (i.e., state-sanctioned assault) tends to be obscured by notions of freedom of choice. In this view, workers choose the jobs they work and thus choose their level of risk. Why should the state intervene in this arrangement, ask free market fundamentalists?

This view is reinforced by the tendency of individuals to make the fundamental attribution error:
In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error refers to the tendency of people to overestimate the influence of individual dispositions in influencing someone’s behavior and to underestimate the influence of situational factors on that behavior. Because of this tendency, people tend to miss those situations in which someone’s behavior is the result of situational factors We “tend to look for the person in the situation more than we search for the situation that makes the person.”
As a result, “situational factors are cognitively hidden (often in plain sight), easily camouflaged and naturalized as mere background.” For example, if an individual is a hedge fund manager, rather than a West Virginia coal miner, there is a tendency to attribute these choices to the individual’s own behavior in terms of pursing financial opportunity. The fact that the results may well be related to education credentials, social and political connections, social mobility, and the like, are missed. (p. 842.).
In this view, workers are more likely to be the cause of injuries because of their behaviour than the decisions employers make about what, when, where and how to produce goods (which, in turn determine the hazards workers face). And, workers can always quit if they don't like it (never mind the need to put food on the table). In this way, the fundamental attribution error tends to make individuals (such as policy makers) sympathetic to corporate efforts to limit or rollback OHS rules.

The upshot of privileging cost-benefit analysis (and more broadly, valorizing the market) over more democratic values (e.g., a right security of person, including being free from harm) is that the level of workplace injuries and fatalities remains unnecessarily high due to limited OHS laws and sparse enforcement.

-- Bob Barnetson

No comments:

Post a Comment