2000 Finalist
U.S. Department of Labor
Innovations in American Government Awards
Innovations in American Government Awards

While the massive industrialization and technological innovation of the past several centuries has fostered a drastic improvement in average living standards in the West, it has also created scores of new potential dangers to workers, from high-voltage electricity to toxic chemical fumes. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), founded by an act of Congress in 1970, has responded to these dangers by identifying hazards, setting regulations, and enforcing compliance through a network of workplace inspectors.

Due to the agency's small staff, much of their work consists of setting large penalties for lack of compliance, resulting in a culture more akin to law enforcement than education. While fines are high, inspections are rare; each one of the over seven million workplaces in the United States is likely to be inspected only once every century.

Given the low chance of inspection, the regulatory burden for small businesses of complying with such laws can be prohibitively large. Small firms often have trouble determining which OSHA regulations affect their workplaces; many such businesses lack the resources to hire a private consultant to determine regulated hazards, resulting in incomplete compliance, which leads to injuries, illnesses, and OSHA fines after failed inspections.

In 1999, OSHA's Regulatory Analysis Unit decided that this wide-ranging problem could be addressed with technology. Their efforts resulted in the rollout of Interactive Expert Advisors, a suite of expert software available for free on OSHA's website, which enable businesses to answer a series of simple questions, and receive reliable answers on how over 1400 pages of published government regulations regarding workplace safety apply to their own businesses.

The first software designed by a government agency to help the public comply with its guidelines, the program uses artificial intelligence software to provide expert problem-identifying and problem-solving help.

Borrowing expertise from engineers, risk assessors, lawyers, economists, health scientists, and compliance officers, the developers of the Advisors program analyzed regulations to decipher their underlying logic, thereby determining how a broad set of overlapping rules applies to a specific set of facts.

Answers are free, consistent, and reliable, and are delivered with full confidentiality. Open distribution and anonymity were crucial steps in convincing business owners that the project was not just a sting operation meant to identify potential violators for later crackdowns. OSHA's efforts appear to have been successful.

In 1999, the public downloaded approximately 12,000 copies of the Hazard Awareness Advisor, with many trade associations then copying and sending out many more Advisors to their members. OSHA estimates the value of this Advisor in expertise and efficiency as saving businesses a total of $81.5 million in consultant fees, follow-up reports, and lost manager work time.

The Advisors were designed with feedback from business, labor, and military users, who used their years of experience with OSHA regulations to help business owners struggling with compliance issues. Led by OSHA, there has been a trend in government towards relying less on penalties and more on good customer service and voluntary compliance.