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On-job safety improves as economy falters

While economic downturns generally bring with them whole rafts of bad news, there is at least one surprise dividend for the American worker as the US moves into this much postponed recession of 1980. If this recession year is like those of the past, then the rate at which workers are injured on their jobs should take a healthy dip. That is to say, for each 100 full-time jobs there will be fewer work- related injuries this year than there were last year.

If we examine the historical record, we find that economic expansions push the work-injury rate upward and economic contractions pull it back down.

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The reason that work-injury rates dance around to the tune of swings in business activity is not difficult to understand. During boom periods, employers do not add workers as rapidly as their orders for new goods increase. This intensifies the strain on both people and machines, increasing the risk of both human and mechanical error. When they do hire new workers, these people are typically younger, less experienced, and more accident prone than those currently on payrolls. This further raises the risk of human error. The result is that each factory experiences more work-related accidents per given number of workers.

When a recession rolls around, and we usually have a couple of these each decade, just the opposite occurs. Businesses do begin laying off workers, but they do not do so as rapidly as their orders for goods decline. The pressure to produce lessens for those remaining on the payroll. The risks of human and mechanical error eases. Those who are laid off are often the youngest, least experienced, and most accident prone, so this further improves the accident record.

This little-known relationship between the business cycle and the work injury rate is more than a mere curiosity. It is essential to keep this relationship in mind when evaluating the nation's efforts to maintain safe and healthful work places. A case in point involves the 1970 legislation which gave birth to one of the more controversial of federal agencies -- the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA as it is known to both friends and critics.

One piece of evidence used to justify a national guardian of worker safety was the dramatic 29 percent increase in the work-injury rate during 1960s. The fear was that the American work place was becoming a fundamentally more dangerous place to work.

In retrospect, it appears that there was no fundamental change going on at all, but rather simply the fact that a very unusual decade-long economic expansion had pulled the work-injury rate steadily upward. In other words, while there may have been many good reasons for creating OSHA, the work-injury rise of the 1960s was probably not one of them.

Now that OSHA does exist, it is important to keep one eye on the business cycle when we attempt to judge the agency's performance. Thus, the very modest increases in the work-injury rate over the past few years is by no means proof that OSHA is not doing its job. A simple statistical model, using the 1941 to 1970 experience as a guide, suggests that the recent economic expansion should have pushed that work-injury indicator up much farther than it actually did. OSHA, therefore, could well have been responsible for keeping these increases rather modest.

By the same token, the sharp drop in the work-injury rate in 1974 and 1975 cannot be attributed solely to OSHA, since those years were characterized by the worst economic recession since the depression of the 1930s.

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What all this boils down to is the caveat that it can be very misleading to say anything about movements in indicators of work-place safety, without, at the same time, monitoring our position in the boom/bust cycle of the American economy.