Why Are Health, Safety and Environmental (HSE) Laws and Regulations Ineffective?

In the last blog posts I presented data that indicated HSE laws and regulations are ineffective in many Asian countries.

The obvious question is why?

Many factors have been cited as causes for ineffective HSE legislation, including:

  • Problems with Laws and Regulations
  • Insufficient Penalty for Non-Compliance
  • Lack of Enforcement
  • Limited Economic Wealth
  • Lack of Education and Training
  • Corruption

We will explore each of these factors in some detail in this blog post.

Problems with Laws and Regulations

There are probably examples of inadequate laws, unclear provisions and conflicting mandates among national institutions in all countries, and these most definitely will affect performance.1  A good example is described by Wu and Chi for the Occupational Disease Prevention Law and the Safe Production Law - the two basic laws for supervision of occupational health and safety in China.2  The regulatory framework of occupational health and safety in China is primarily within the mandate of the Health Administrative Department and Work Safety Administrative Department.  These two regulatory departments are both authorized by laws and respectively assume their duties and responsibilities.  This means that occupational health and occupational safety, from the perspective of legislation and supervision, are separated administratively.    And, the lack of harmonized legislation and unified supervision result in conflict of the regulatory departments’ function and poor coordination in carrying other their duties.   This is exasperated by businesses' confusion over which department assumes regulatory function for a particular issue.

Insufficient Penalty for Non-Compliance

penalty (Copy)

The issue of insufficient penalty for non-compliance is well documented. For instance, Faure discusses the so-called deterrence hypothesis presented by economists.3  This hypothesis states that in the case of environmental compliance, a potential polluter will make a rational calculus of costs and benefits of complying with environmental regulation and will only comply when the expected costs of a violation are higher than the potential gains.   It is well-known that violating environmental regulations, for example not installing a water treatment plant or simply delaying such an investment, can generate substantial gains. In order to deter violations, a substantial expected sanction could convince the potential perpetrator to follow the law. This expected sanction consists on the one hand of the probability of being inspected, prosecuted, and sanctioned, and on the other hand of the sanction being imposed.

Lack of Enforcement

Even the best national HSE legislation available is ineffective without means of enforcement.  Regulatory punishment for HSE violations is a mainstay of nearly every industrialized nation's worker health and safety and environmental policies.

Gray and Shimshack reviewed empirical evidence on the impacts of environmental monitoring and enforcement actions.4  The consistent findings from this literature review are as follows:

  1. environmental monitoring and enforcement activities generate substantial specific deterrence, reducing future violations at the targeted firm;
  2. environmental monitoring and enforcement activities generate substantial general deterrence, reducing future violations at facilities other than the targeted one; and
  3. environmental monitoring and enforcement activities generate not only reductions in violations but also significant reductions in emissions.

Similarly, Verbeek and Ivanov note that enforcement of regulation is an effective intervention to reduce work-related cancer, dust-related diseases, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, noise, and injuries.5

A review paper by Tompa et al concluded that general deterrence is less effective that specific deterrence with regards to citations and penalties.6

Limited Economic Wealth

As discussed in the previous blog post, a key factor for national HSE performance is related to the wealth of that country. In poor countries, the basic necessities of food, shelter, and security are simply more important than consideration of worker health and safety and environmental issues – and this applies from the national level down to the individual worker.

The situation is summarized succinctly by Faure who reviewed international data and concluded that “the “most important lesson for those that want improvement in environmental quality … remains: fight poverty and increase income levels”.7

Lack of Education and Training

child blackboard low (Copy)

Levels of education of the workforce and specific training programs have both been cited as contributors to lack of effectiveness of HSE legislation.

Socioeconomic factors, including level of education has been shown in several studies to affect worker injury and fatality rates. For instance, Kim et al analyzed Korean data from 2007 to 2009 and showed a negative correlation the rate of injury and education level.8

A detailed review of the effectiveness of occupational health and safety training was done by Robson et al. Somewhat surprisingly and apparently paradoxically, they found strong evidence for the effectiveness of training on workers OHS behaviours, but insufficient evidence on its effectiveness on prevention of injuries and illness.9

While the importance of education on environmental awareness and presumably by extension compliance with laws seems to be widely accepted, there is a surprising lack of empirical data that demonstrates this relationship.10


Corruption is a well-documented factor affecting both worker health & safety and environmental performance.

Examples are given in several studies for industries and programs as diverse as automobile emission testing in Mexico City,11 small-scale coal mining in China,12 and garment factory fires in Bangladesh.13  Biswas et al also noted that levels of pollution in more than 100 countries are dependent on the level of corruption.14

Take Home Message

There are a myriad of factors affecting HSE performance and the effectiveness of laws and regulations in many Asian countries. Unfortunately and disheartening is that there is little that a single individual or company can do to change the national situation

Certainly, it is beneficial to understand the limitation of the country and its administrative issues, and workforce and operations under your responsibility.  Use this information to assist in developing an effective HSE management system that is suitable for your situation and context.

This leads in nicely to next week's blog post on HSE operational excellence, a well deserved change of pace from these many recent legal and regulatory posts.

Thanks for reading.  Keep safe.  Be healthy.  Respect your environment.

I hope that you will bookmark the blog, share it with your colleagues and visit the blog frequently because you find it informative and helpful.  I value your feedback and suggestions for future topics.

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Next Week’s Blog Topic: The Road to HSE Operational Excellence

Photo Credits: Rodin's Thinker and Child on Blackboard photos courtesy of Jack Moreh at freerange.com; Don't Honk Sign photo courtesy of cosproductions at freerange.com



Randall D. Shaw, Ph.D.
Posted in Asia, Environment, HSE, Laws and Regulations, Middle East.


    • That’s a pretty obvious and alarming point mobi, that are no heavy penalties on non-compliance attitude of organizations for this. Though it may sound harsh to criticize but it’s more important to raise the issue. Companies might have the disability to be bang on target with the regulatory compliance but how hard it is for any big organization to have a compliance management software integrated with their system to keep them updated about latest practices and laws. what’s your take?

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