Safety Regulations

Safety regulations are defined as mandatory requirements that aim to prevent or reduce injury. They include laws and regulations, such as prohibiting the sale of fireworks, and mandatory standards, such as specifying that children's nightwear be fire resistant. Table 1 presents examples of safety regulations that fall into a number of categories.

Environments for Safety Regulations

A common factor in whether regulation is used is the seriousness of the outcome being addressed in terms of human health. For this reason regulation is more common in transportation and the workplace, where the potential for fatal injury is perceived to be relatively great, and less common in the home and in sports environments, where the potential for fatal injury is perceived to be less. Regulations are often introduced in situations where the actions of one person can injure other persons who do not have the ability or opportunity to decide whether to accept the risks associated with those actions. The most common examples relate to regulations protecting the safety of children and of workers.

Even where a person's actions are likely to cause injury only to herself, regulation may be introduced if the costs of injury to that person are largely borne by the public. Perhaps the most contentious among this class of regulations in the United States are mandatory motorcycle helmet and safety belt laws. The overall effectiveness of safety regulations depends on whether the requirement being mandated is capable of preventing or reducing the target injury and on whether the process of regulation is effective. Some of the factors that influence the effectiveness of the process of regulation include: (1) whether the regulation requires active or passive compliance; (2) the effectiveness of enforcement; (3) public awareness of the regulation; and (4) public support for the regulation.

Regulations can require active compliance by the person being protected, for example putting on a safety belt, or they can provide passive protection, for example the temperature of hot water systems being preset before leaving the factory. Compliance with passive protection is generally much greater and there is less need for enforcement activity at the level of the individual when this approach to regulation is adopted.

To be effective the process of regulation requires sufficient public knowledge about the regulation and adequate enforcement. Promotion of voluntary compliance to achieve a level of community support before regulating has been an effective paradigm in countries such as Australia with respect to issues such as the mandatory use of safety belts and bicycle helmets. Once there is a high degree of public acceptance, there is less need for widespread enforcement and greater potential to focus enforcement on the nonconforming minority.

The most productive role of enforcement is to increase compliance, rather than detect noncompliance. Public education about the regulation that stresses the likelihood of detection has been found to increase compliance with drunk driving and speeding laws. There is little evidence that very large penalties produce significantly greater compliance by individuals than sizable, but not extreme, penalties. For companies, penalties are generally larger to minimize noncompliance based on commercial reasons. Selective enforcement of regulations can lead to ineffectiveness of the regulations for the group that is not being enforced and concerns about victimization from those groups being enforced. The police generally enforce traffic safety regulations. In the workplace, the enforcement role is sometimes undertaken by labor unions or by government workplace safety bodies.


Aim of safety regulations
Aim of regulation Examples
Limit access to dangerous products or activities Graduated driver licensing
Machine operator licensing
Restrictions on the sale of alcohol to minors
Child-resistant closures on pharmaceuticals or cleaning products
Firearm regulations
Limit levels of harmful substances Lead in paints
Speed limits
Power restrictions on motorcycles
Temperature of hot water systems
Manual handling limits
Require the use or installation of particular protective devices Safety belts
Motorcycle helmets
Protective gear in workplaces
Smoke detectors
Electrical safety switches
Prescribe protective performance Motor vehicle safety standards
Standards for personal protective equipment
Fire-resistant nightwear
Isolation pool fencing
Safety glass
Require information to be provided to consumers about likely hazards Labeling of poisons and pharmaceuticals
Alcohol content labeling on beverage containers
SOURCE : Courtesy of Haworth, 2001.

In other arenas, community groups or local government enforce.

Regulations can be prescriptive or performance based. In relation to a product, prescriptive regulations prescribe how the product must be constructed but performance-based regulations require that the product meet certain performance criteria (e.g., acceleration values on a crash test dummy). Manufacturers have argued that prescriptive regulation has the potential to impede the development of innovative solutions and possibly safer products.

Effects of Safety Regulations

Improving safety by regulation is a relatively slow process. It can take many years to have regulations passed by the government. In addition, most regulation is not retrospective and only applies to products manufactured or activities commenced after the implementation of the regulation (or even some years after implementation). For example, a regulation that requires electrical safety switches to be fitted to new homes constructed after a certain date will take many years to permeate a significant proportion of homes.

The levels of safety performance required by legislation may be very low. An alternative approach that is becoming more common in transport safety is to combine regulation with encouraging consumer pressure to drive the market to produce something safer than is required by regulation. For example, the Snell Memorial Foundation tests motorcycle helmets to what is generally considered a more rigorous standard than that required by the U.S. Department of Transportation standard. Many manufacturers submit their helmets for Snell testing because they perceive that certification to this standard provides a market advantage. In such instances, the role of regulation may become that of providing a minimum standard to prevent unacceptably poor performance, rather than encouraging good safety performance.

However, regulation may sometimes result in counterproductive behavior. Those who resist the regulation may attempt to circumvent it. One example of this problem is the phenomenon of "toy" motorcycle helmets that provide little or no head protection. Some objectors to compulsory helmet wearing legislation wear these helmets to avoid detection by police.

Sometimes there are objections to safety regulations on the grounds that they subjugate individual rights to the public good, particularly in the United States. Mandatory-helmet-wearing legislation has been extremely contentious on these grounds. Helmet use reduces motorcyclist fatalities, injuries, and treatment costs and universal helmet laws increase helmet use substantially. The requirement is capable of preventing or reducing the target injury and the process of regulation is effective; however, the price for these benefits is that individual actions are restricted. Through a helmet use law, society requires each motorcyclist to take an action that appears to affect only him- or herself, but a motorcyclist's injury or fatality affects many others, directly and indirectly. Family, friends, and coworkers must adapt to the personal consequences of an injury or fatality. Society as a whole bears many of the direct and indirect costs, and these issues must be weighed against individual freedom of action.

See also: Causes of Death ; Injury Mortality ; Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire


Barss, Peter, Gordon Smith, Susan Baker, and Dinesh Mohan. Injury Prevention: An International Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

National Committee for Injury Prevention and Control. Injury Prevention: Meeting the Challenge. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Preusser, David F., James H. Hedlund, and R. G. Ulmer. Evaluation of Motorcycle Helmet Law Repeal in Arkansas and Texas. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Safety Administration, 2000.


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