10/10/2012 02:41 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2012

Forced Labor

Charges that regulation of health and safety conditions in the workplace results in a net job loss are a fallacy. The claim that lack of regulation at such sites costs lives is not.

These principles should be kept in mind when Republican Party leaders pledge to relax or remove "oppressive" red tape that they contend is impeding entrepreneurial initiative and economic prosperity. It should not be overlooked that strong, strictly enforced workplace safety regulation keeps the labor force healthy, thereby saving jobs rather than eliminating them.

Rules that are duplications, or unnecessary, from the get-go should be discarded, yet one must be careful not to throw the proverbial "baby out with the bath water." There is a need to be selective, as can be testified by some of our states having better workplace safety records than others, and Americans being nine times more likely to be killed by an on-the-job occurrence than their British counterparts. The reason for the superior track records -- regulation. In Britain's case, it has had the benefit of a 200 year head-start in regulating occupational health and safety, and we have yet to catch up.

A study of states' performance by the Rand Center for Health and Safety in the Workplace graphically illustrates the impact that strictly enforced regulation can have on employees' well-being. The states with the worst records (located mostly in the South) had a weak regulatory structure, highlighted by lower workmen compensation benefits, less union presence, lower wages, and fewer workplace inspections to enforce safety rules. States with the best records (situated mostly on the Pacific Coast) were regulatory polar opposites.

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney might want to go slow in aligning himself too closely with his party's strident anti-environmental regulatory zealotry, considering there is a flagrant occupational health and safety blemish on his record. In 1998, Romney made an investment in the Chinese appliance company Global-Tech which turned out to be a massive sweatshop that was a cauldron of child labor, subsistence wages, seven day work weeks, squalid dormitory and dining facilities, and sheer human misery. It took Romney two years to divest himself of any connection with the company, and during that time, Global Tech's maltreatment of its employees went unchallenged.

In this country, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that more than 4,500 workers die and four million are seriously injured in industrial accidents annually, while tens of thousands expire or fall severely ill because of pollution-related illnesses contracted on site.

Worldwide, the International Labor Organization estimates that every year, 2.2 million workers die on the job. The vast majority of these fatalities were the product of occupational illnesses, most of which could have been prevented if strictly enforced rules were in place.

A recent study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine documents that regulation does enhance safety in the workplace environment. Researchers found that at locations where OSHA conducted inspections with authorization to impose stiff penalties, injuries were reduced on average by 19 to 24 percent annually for a two year period following the official visit.

Republicans may rail against excessive rule-making, yet evidence suggests that as far as safety in American workplaces is concerned, the problem isn't too much regulation -- it's not enough.