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Occupational Safety Issues a Window to Deeper Concerns in Indiana | opinion

The Indianapolis Star recently released a detailed exposure of Indiana’s workplace inspection program. The authors detailed what appeared to be COVID-specific failures that caused Indiana to fall to last place statewide in safety inspections. This report eclipses Gov. Eric Holcomb’s administration’s overall excellent COVID response.

The decline in safety inspections has been accompanied by a spike in workplace deaths that began well before COVID. Between 2010 and 2020, worker deaths increased by 30%. As national workplace death rates declined, Indianas slipped to levels not seen in three or four decades.

This nefarious result is too big to be a statistical anomaly or a by-product of careless inspections during COVID. It is part of a broader policy shift that began shortly after the Great Recession and is ongoing today. It impacts the US Department of Labor’s inspection and safety programs and, more significantly, our overall approach to employee education and training. This policy change cost Hoosiers his life. It has also weakened our economy. Let me explain the genesis of this failure.

Sometime after the Great Recession, deep state budget cuts began to threaten the effectiveness of state government. Former Governor Mitch Daniels made tremendous strides in improving these agencies with transactional missions. This is how the BMV became a national showpiece. But most of the state government is non-transactional. Family and social services, education, human resource development, environmental management and occupational safety are all public services that require a more complex service model. Fast, friendly service is not enough for their mission.

The problem wasn’t just nuanced management practices, however. Sometime after the Great Recession, Indiana’s job security, human resources development, and education policies made a concrete and purposeful shift to support only the short-term needs of businesses. This was an amateurish mistake that continues to hamper our economy.

I have a great understanding of the needs of the economy. I have published studies arguing against the minimum wage, criticized excessive regulations and published a peer-reviewed study criticizing right-to-work legislation in the Libertarian Party Cato Journal. Trade is essential to prosperity. The free exchange of goods and services, especially one’s own labor power, forms the basis of human prosperity.

However, in the years after the 2007-09 downturn, the Indiana government took a dramatic step away from its constitutional duties to instead serve the short-term needs of a few companies. The best evidence of this comes from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, which changed its mission around 2015 from supporting worker education to supporting the labor needs of a few companies.

This approach has three serious problems. First, civil service is accompanied by an oath to the constitution. That means focusing on legal obligations rather than the concerns of some outspoken employers. The change of mission at Workforce Development contradicts this oath of office.

Second, the government’s shift in focus from workers or taxpayers to corporations has manifested itself in deeply ineffective practices. For a decade, Indiana’s DWD ignored data on long-term labor market trends. This led to them constantly misleading Hoosiers about job demand and misrepresenting the need for post-secondary education. This probably played a role in our growing educational deficit.

The third troubling aspect of Indiana’s human resources policy is that it failed to meet its own standards of success. Since the end of the Great Recession, Indiana’s economy has grown at little more than half the rate of the nation as a whole. Our incomes and educational levels have declined relative to the rest of the nation, making our long-term economic prospects worse than they have been in more than half a century. The goal of reforms after the Great Recession was simply to boost economic growth. It failed because of this measure alone.

It is time for a change. The Indiana state government should be sensitive to the needs of business and workers. But it must serve the interests of all taxpayers. Policies to weaken job security, abandon Daniel’s ambitious educational goals, and downplay the need for post-secondary education have slowed Indiana’s economic growth.

Just to be clear, none of these changes were made with malicious intent. The goal has always been to make Indiana a more prosperous state. But intention is not enough. A modern economy requires quality public services. This is not only possible with fast service and a friendly smile. The growing weakness in Indiana’s workforce development, education and workplace safety areas highlights a broader problem that needs more focused, intelligent attention.

Michael Hicks is the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and Ball State University.

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