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Penn Awarded $450K From Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for Research to Help OSHA Protect U.S. Workers

November 29, 2010
Cary Coglianese: Edward B. Shils Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science; Director, Penn Program on Regulation
Adam Finkel: Fellow and Executive Director, Penn Program on Regulation

More than 4,000 Americans die each year from safety hazards at work – and researchers believe that 40,000-50,000 more die prematurely each year from chronic disease caused in whole or part by workplace exposure to hazardous substances – but the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can visit only about one percent of the nation's potentially dangerous workplaces each year. Like all regulatory agencies established to protect the public, OSHA faces a fundamental challenge: there are many more firms to inspect than there are government personnel to inspect them.

Given its limited resources, one way OSHA can reduce workplace injuries and fatalities is to target its inspections at the most dangerous worksites. But how can the agency predict which worksites are likely to be dangerous? That is the question facing a multidisciplinary team at the University of Pennsylvania, which has just been awarded a $450,000 grant by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to help improve OSHA’s ability to select workplaces for inspection, and thereby prevent unnecessary injuries and fatalities.

Led by Penn Law Professor Cary Coglianese and Fellow Adam Finkel, the team of Penn scientists, lawyers and criminologists will use cutting-edge analytical techniques to develop and test alternative strategies for deploying regulatory inspection resources. The team also includes Richard A. Berk, professor of Criminology and Statistics, and Professor Edward A. Emmett of the Penn School of Medicine.

Over the next two and a half years, the Penn team will analyze 30 years of OSHA enforcement and violations data, along with characteristics of individual companies, to help OSHA profile firms by their tendency to allow dangerous workplace conditions to persist; the more signs and symptoms the team can find that increase the likelihood that an inspection will target a dangerous worksite, the more opportunity OSHA will have to reduce the toll of injuries and illnesses in the U.S. workforce.

“Regulatory agencies are collecting vast amounts of data that they offer to the public, but have often been slow to use their own data to evaluate and improve their own performance,” said Finkel, a former director of health standards at OSHA. “We hope to show that by merging disparate datasets from various federal and other programs, regulatory agencies can better target scarce inspection resources to find the relatively few firms that may be causing most of the problems in their area, whether it is workplace safety and health, environmental pollution, food safety, or other areas.”

The project will be facilitated by the Penn Program on Regulation (PPR) as part of a larger Penn Law initiative to enhance research and engagement on public policy issues. PPR brings together faculty from across the University of Pennsylvania to analyze regulatory problems and alternative strategies for solving them.

“Finding ways to improve regulatory enforcement demands exactly the kind of interdisciplinary collaboration that is the hallmark of both the Penn Program on Regulation as well as Penn Law,” said Coglianese, PPR director.

The Penn project is one of 13 new research projects, selected from a pool of more than 150 proposals, recently funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its Public Health Law Research program. The other projects focus on issues such as lead exposure, vaccinations, and emergency preparedness. The grants total $3,409,985.