by Bruce Fox
Fox and Farley
While many feel that regulations “kill the economy and cost jobs”, statistics show that might not actually be the case. Read on to find out more about safety regulations in the United States and what they mean for each consumer.
In 1906, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a book that uncovered the dirty underbelly of the meatpacking industry in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. The public outcry galvanized a movement to clean up the industry and led President Theodore Roosevelt to push for the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Many people credit the publication of The Jungle with the founding of modern governmental safety regulations, including regulations regarding food preparation and handling, safe working conditions, and child labor. Without a doubt, there is a direct line from the Pure Food and Drug Act to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration some 24 years later.
Fast forward to today’s political debates and you are not likely to hear the term “regulation” used in a kind manner. “Regulations kill the economy and cost jobs” is the refrain we are now used to hearing. Certainly, not all regulations governing the conduct of business can be defended and the term “red tape” is justified in many circumstances. We should be vigilant in trimming unnecessary and duplicative regulations at all times. In addition, there are laws on the books in Tennessee that date back more than a century that are not only outdated but are almost never enforced. Still, it is not clear at all that regulations as a whole create any sort of drag on the economy or cost jobs. Independent analysis of the effect of regulations on employment in the United States by the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that when regulations cause job loss in one sector, job creation generally occurs in another sector. Additionally, many regulations may create extra costs for certain businesses, but the overall effect is a positive for the economy. For example, regulations to enforce the Clean Air Act, enacted under the Richard Nixon administration, have saved billions of dollars in health care costs. When Americans aren’t spending money on doctor visits and hospitalizations related to breathing problems, they are spending that money in other areas—and that creates jobs.
What is truly concerning about the general discourse going on now concerning regulations is the impact it could have on public safety. Consider, for example, Congress’s decision in 1970 to regulate how the pharmaceutical industry could package certain products. Prior to that time, child safety caps on pill bottles, for example, did not exist. Thanks to the regulations put in place after 1970, untold numbers of children have not been injured or killed. There is no doubt that the requirement to use childproof packaging increases costs for businesses, but do we really believe those costs aren’t worth the lives of children that have been saved? There is also no doubt that current regulations governing the inspection of food such as beef, poultry, and produce imported from another country are a burden to the agricultural business. Do we rid ourselves of these regulatory burdens and simply await mass outbreaks of E. coli or salmonella epidemics? Studies have made it clear that exposure to lead causes stunted brain growth and can lead to mental disabilities in children. Do we relieve businesses the burden of complying with the regulations in place to keep lead out of those toys, or do we protect our children from something we know will harm their development? I think the answer is clear.
Failure of businesses to comply with safety regulations can have disastrous consequences. On April 5, 2010, a massive explosion rocked the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine in West Virginia. Thirty-one miners at the site were killed, making it the worst mining disaster in the United States since 1970. In the investigation that followed, the Mine Safety and Health Administration found that the mine’s operator, Massey Energy, had engaged in flagrant safety violations of regulations in place at the time, and as a result, the mine was inappropriately vented. The lack of proper venting led to a build-up of methane gas and airborne coal dust. MSHA had previously issued 1,342 separate citations for violations of safety regulations at the mine in the five years previous to the disaster. The findings showed Massey chose not to abide by regulations in an attempt to maximize coal production and reduce costs. An independent investigation team also found MSHA failed to act decisively at the mine or adequately enforce the regulations, and this lack of enforcement also was a cause of the explosion. This is an example where regulations were in place, though not adequately enforced. Can we believe that, had the coal company been allowed to simply police themselves and decide what was and was not safe for their workers, the disaster (or a larger disaster) would not have happened? I don’t think so.
So, next time you have a discussion about regulations killing the economy and costing jobs, please first consider what regulations are being considered. Granted, not all regulations are good ones. But most are put in place to keep us safe. Ask yourself what you would give up for yourself, your loved ones, and others to be safe from dangerous products or hazardous workplaces. I suggest it might not be worth the tradeoff.
Bruce Fox has practiced law for more than 30 years and has successfully represented clients at every trial and appellate court level of the Tennessee State Judicial System.