Compliance Contrasts: EU vs. US Regulations for Industrial Companies

Feb 22, 2024

From towering wind turbines in Germany to sprawling oil refineries in Texas, the industrial sector forms the lifeblood of both the European Union (EU) and the United States (US). But amidst all the machinery and innovation lies a universal challenge: navigating the complex laws governing their operations. For industrial companies, staying compliant isn’t just a box-ticking exercise; it’s crucial for safeguarding public health, protecting the environment, and ensuring business continuity.  In this article we examine the key differences between EU and US compliance requirements, and what they mean for industrial operations in each region.

Environmental Standards: A Comprehensive Overview

Both the EU and US share a commitment to environmental protection, but there are significant differences in their strategies. The EU takes a centralized approach anchored by the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), which serves as the foundation of EU environmental law. This single pillar sets strict, integrated standards for large industrial facilities across all sectors, tackling air, water, land, and waste pollution holistically. It aims to minimize environmental impact and safeguard public health.

In contrast, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), uses a sector-by-sector approach in the US. This strategy tailors regulations to specific industries, acknowledging their varied environmental footprints. While targeted regulations offer advantages, this approach also has drawbacks. The sheer number of regulations can be complex for companies operating across sectors, potentially leading to loopholes and inconsistencies in environmental protection.

Beyond regulatory frameworks, enforcement methods illustrate further differences. The EU  empowers its member states to handle implementation and enforcement of IED regulations. Conversely, the EPA directly enforces its regulations, leveraging the power to issue fines and penalties. The EU prioritizes transparency, granting public access to permit, emission, and enforcement data. The US regulations, however, tend to be less transparent, posing potential challenges for accountability.

The EU raises the bar with its Best Available Techniques (BAT) requirement, a comprehensive set of environmental benchmarks an industrial facility must meet in order to be granted an operating permit. The BAT compels permit seekers to consider their holistic environmental footprint, encompassing emissions to include air, water, land, waste generation, resource efficiency, and even site restoration upon closure. This approach ensures that permitted facilities operate at the pinnacle of environmental responsibility. In contrast, the US lacks a similar requirement, allowing negative environmental impacts to persist and falling behind the advanced standards set by the EU.

Two examples of how each agency enforces regulations are the recent cases of Daimler and Nucor Corporation. In September 2019, the European Commission, acting through the IED, hit German carmaker Daimler with an €870 million fine for violating nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions regulations for diesel cars. The investigation uncovered illegal defeat devices used to manipulate emissions testing, highlighting the IED’s focus on individual vehicle compliance. Nucor Corporation faced a penalty of nearly $100 million in one of the largest environmental settlements in US history, failing to control pollution from its steel factories in seven states. This demonstrates the EPA’s authority to tackle broader facility emissions. Both instances illustrate the commitment of the IED and EPA to enforcing environmental regulations and holding major corporations accountable.

Product Safety Across Borders

Ensuring product safety is a necessity for industrial companies. While both regions have established frameworks, the EU takes a typically centralized approach to enforcing product safety with the General Product Safety Directive (GPSD). This directive sets broad safety requirements for all products placed on the market and helps to establish a baseline level of safety for all manufactured consumer products. Its aim is to protect consumers from any risks that could arise from the use of these products, regardless of whether specific safety regulations exist for them. Additionally, the EU has specific mandates that further strengthen safety protocols; one example is the Toy Safety Directive, conceived to safeguard the most vulnerable segments of the population.

Comparatively, the US relies on the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to establish product safety standards through regulations and recalls. The CPSC oversees the safety of various consumer products, including toys, electronics, household products, furniture, and more. Its responsibilities include developing safety standards, conducting research on potential hazards, issuing recalls for unsafe products, and providing information to consumers to help them make informed purchasing decisions. 

While the CPSC and European regulatory bodies don’t directly partner on product recalls, they collaborate in several ways to ensure product safety worldwide by sharing information about potential hazards, conducting joint outreach campaigns, and aligning safety standards. This collaboration happens through organizations like the Global Harmonization System (GHS), and public platforms like the EU’s RAPEX, which shares information about dangerous products, and the CPSC website, which lists ongoing international activities and recalls. 

One example highlighting international response to product safety concerns is the 2007 Mattel recall. Concerns about lead paint and defective magnets prompted the company to withdraw 19 million toys globally, impacting markets across the US and Europe and requiring each agency to act accordingly.

This seamless exchange of knowledge and expertise helps them identify risks faster and enact quicker recalls across borders, ultimately creating a safer environment for consumers around the world.

Workplace Safety: Protecting Every Worker, Every Way

As with the IED, the EU again takes a centralized approach with the Framework Directive on Safety and Health at Work, which lays out the basic requirements for worker safety across its member states. These regulations are supported by EU-OSHA, which provides assistance to member states through guidance documents, training workshops, and online resources. By collecting feedback from stakeholders and raising public awareness, EU-OSHA also informs future revisions of the Directive and encourages both workers and employers to prioritize safety.

As is typical for the US, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) takes an industry-specific approach, crafting regulations tailored to different sectors like construction or chemicals. While this strategy allows for targeted solutions, it creates an intricate web of regulations, particularly challenging for multinational corporations to navigate. Furthermore, the patchy enforcement methods implemented by OSHA raise concerns about the ability to ensure consistent application across the country’s vast geographical expanse.

Among the most common workplace hazards, fall protection is the most prevalent.The means in which workplace safety incidents are tracked and reported varies greatly between the EU and the US. The EU-OSHA prioritizes protecting the privacy of companies and individuals involved in enforcement actions, limiting their public database to anonymized summaries. This aligns with legal restrictions and concerns about potential reputational damage. In contrast, the US takes a more transparent approach with OSHA’s detailed violation database, which includes company names, locations, and specific hazards. While privacy concerns exist, the focus is on public awareness and encouraging safe work environments through greater visibility.

Despite these differing approaches, both EU-OSHA and OSHA share a common objective: ensuring the safety of workers. While EU-OSHA serves as an information hub and facilitator for a centralized directive, OSHA focuses on direct enforcement and industry-specific regulations, which brings uncertainty to the effectiveness of the laws in place. Combined, the Framework Directive and EU-OSHA form a robust system to ensure worker safety, once again illustrating the EU’s superior law enforcement standards.


While both the EU and US strive for strong industrial regulations, the EU’s centralized approach offers distinct advantages. The IED streamlines environmental standards, BAT elevates environmental responsibility, and the GPSD harmonizes product safety across borders. This holistic approach creates a consistent regulatory environment, promotes innovation, and ultimately supports a safer, healthier, and more sustainable industrial landscape. While the US tends to favor an industry-specific approach, it risks inconsistency, complexity, and potential environmental and safety gaps. As the global community tackles growing industrial challenges, the EU’s centralized model serves as an example of effective and impactful regulation, which the US could draw inspiration from to achieve similar progress.

If you’re unsure if your company is compliant with industrial regulations, click here to book a demo and speak with a Datafisher specialist.