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Today’s Bad Idea: Merge Labor and Education Departments

Thursday, June 21st, 2018

The Trump administration today proposed to merge the Department of Labor into the Department of Education.

While some have suggested that the new department be christened the “Department of Child Labor,” the Trump administration has come up with the “Department of Education and the Workforce.”

Some may be experiencing a sense of déjà vu at this name change.  In 1995, the newly elected Republican majority in the House of Representatives changed the name of what had always been the Education and Labor Committee to the Education and Workforce Committee. Democrats replaced “Workforce” with “Labor” when they regained the majority in 2007, and the Republicans duly changed it back to “Workforce”when they regained the majority again in 2011.

In short, the word “labor” sounds too much like “labor movement” and those nasty, unpleasant, trouble-making labor unions.

We’ll see what happens when the Democrats retake the majority after the November elections.

Some have suggested that they could christen the new agency the “Department of Child Labor”

While the alleged purpose of this merger is to consolidate vocational skills training programs in one agency, the real goal is, as the Washington Post describes, to build “on Trump’s pledge to shrink the size and scope of the federal government, a long-sought goal of conservatives.”  And of course, draining the swamp:

“This effort, along with the recent executive orders on federal unions, are the biggest pieces so far of our plan to drain the swamp,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget who has led the 14-month reorganization effort, said in a statement. “The federal government is bloated, opaque, bureaucratic, and inefficient,” he added.

Now, there are several reasons why this is a bad idea. Chris Lu, Deputy Secretary of Labor during Obama’s second term notes that only parts of DOL and Education deal with worker training. Most of the Department of Labor consists of enforcement agencies like OSHA, MSHA, Wage & Hour and OFCCP that protect workers’ health and safety, pay, benefits and anti-discrimination rights.

And while neither OSHA, nor MSHA, nor enforcement were mentioned by Mulvaney, the idea of turning OSHA and MSHA into educational agencies that just provide education,  training and fact sheets to employers is probably appealing to Republicans and the business community.

Seth Harris, who was Deputy Secretary of Labor under Obama’s first term, calls the proposal “a solution in search of a problem” and predicts that it’s not going to happen. Any major reorganizations of Cabinet departments require Congressional approval — which means 60 votes in the Senate — and that’s not going to happen any time soon.

These type of major reorganizations rarely succeed because there are too many powerful organizations that have an interest in maintaining the status quo.  Lu notes that “there are also training programs at HHS, Interior, USDA, EPA, VA, DOD, DOJ. Shifting all of those programs would cause a firestorm on Congress and with outside groups.”

The National Employment Law Project points out that the Trump administration’s track record on labor issues doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that this proposal is being done in the best interests of workers:

This latest half-baked idea is just one more betrayal of the very workers Donald Trump pledged to put front and center when he took the oath of office. Since then, his administration has—among other things–relaxed protections for workers’ retirement savings, weakened overtime pay rights, attacked workers’ unions, rolled back important health and safety protections that would protect workers from hazardous substances on the job, and pushed through a massive tax bill that further enriches corporations and the nation’s wealthiest at the expense of workers and their families.

So if swamp draining is the goal, I have a few suggestions.  Merge ethically challenged Cabinet officers like Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, Wilbur Ross, Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos with the unemployment office (even though only Pruitt would probably need the assistance.)  Then get these agencies back to accomplishing their missions: protecting workers, the environment, public housing and public schools) and, as Chris Lu says, “fill vacant positions with competent people, provide agencies with sufficient funding, and stop denigrating federal employees. ”

This blog was originally published on June 21, 2018 at Confined Space. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

The Lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Are Still Relevant 107 Years Later

Monday, March 26th, 2018

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Firefighters arrived at the scene, but their ladders weren’t tall enough to reach the impacted area. Trapped inside because the owners had locked the fire escape exit doors, workers jumped to their deaths. Thirty minutes later, the fire was over, and 146 of the 500 workers—mostly young women—were dead.

Many of us have read about the tragic Triangle fire in school textbooks. But the fire alone wasn’t what made the shirtwaist makers such a focal point for worker safety. In fact, workplace deaths weren’t uncommon at the time. It is estimated that more than 100 workers died every day on the job around 1911.

A week after the fire, Anne Morgan and Alva Belmont hosted a meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House to demand action on fire safety, and people of all backgrounds packed the hall. A few days later, more than 350,000 people participated in a funeral march for those lost at Triangle.

Three months later, responding to pressure from activists, New York’s governor signed a law creating the Factory Investigating Commission, which had unprecedented powers. The commission investigated nearly 2,000 factories in dozens of industries and, with the help of such workers’ rights advocates as Frances Perkins, enacted eight laws covering fire safety, factory inspections, and sanitation and employment rules for women and children. The following year, they pushed for 25 more laws—entirely revamping New York State’s labor protections and creating a state Department of Labor to enforce them. During the Roosevelt administration, Perkins and Robert Wagner (who chaired the commission) helped create the nation’s most sweeping worker protections through the New Deal, including the National Labor Relations Act.

The shirtwaist makers’ story inspired hundreds of activists across the state and the nation to push for fundamental reforms. And while there have been successes along the way, the problems that led to the Triangle fire are still present today. It was just five years ago, for instance, that the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 garment workers.

As worker health and safety continues to be a significant issue both in the United States and abroad, the AFL-CIO took a strong stand at our 2017 Convention, passing a resolution on worker safety:

The right to a safe job is a fundamental worker right and a core union value. Every worker should be able to go to work and return home safely at the end of the day.

Throughout our entire history, through organizing, bargaining, education, legislation and mobilization, working people and their unions have fought for safe and healthful working conditions to protect workers from injury, illnesses and death. We have made real progress, winning strong laws and protections that have made jobs safer and saved workers’ lives.

Over the years, our fight has gotten harder as employers’ opposition to workers’ rights and protections has grown, and attacks on unions have intensified. We haven’t backed down. Most recently, after decades-long struggles, joining with allies we won groundbreaking standards to protect workers from silica, beryllium and coal dust, and stronger protections for workers to report injuries and exercise other safety and health rights.

Now all these hard-won gains are threatened. President Trump and many Republicans in Congress have launched an aggressive assault on worker protections.

The worker protections under assault include:

  • Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget cuts funding for the Department of Labor by 21%, including a 40% cut in job training for low-income adults, youth, and dislocated workers and the elimination of the Labor Department’s employment program for older workers.
  • The budget also proposes to cut the Occupational Safety and Health Administration budget, eliminate OSHA’s worker training program and cut funding for coal mine enforcement, while proposing a 22% increase for the Office of Labor-Management Standards’ oversight of unions.
  • The budget also proposes to slash the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s job safety research budget by 40%, to move NIOSH to the National Institutes of Health from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to remove the World Trade Center Health Program from NIOSH’s direction.
  • OSHA delayed the effective date of the final beryllium standard originally issued in January 2017. Then it delayed enforcement of the standard until May 11, 2018. In June 2017, OSHA proposed to weaken the beryllium rule as it applies to the construction and maritime industries.
  • OSHA delayed enforcement of the silica standard in construction, which in December was fully upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
  • OSHA delayed the requirement for employers to electronically report summary injury and illness information to the agency set to go into effect on July 1, 2017, until December 31, 2017. OSHA has announced it intends to issue a proposal to revise or revoke some provisions of the rule.
  • OSHA withdrew its policy that gave nonunion workers the right to have a representative participate in OSHA enforcement inspections on their behalf.
  • The Mine Safety and Health Administration delayed the mine examination rule for metal and nonmetal mines from May 23, 2017, until Oct. 2, 2017, and then again until March 2, 2018. MSHA also proposed weakening changes to the rule, including delaying mine inspections until after work has begun, instead of before work commences.
  • In November 2017, MSHA announced it would revisit the 2014 Coal Dust standard to examine its effectiveness and whether it should be modified to be less burdensome on industry. This comes at the same time NIOSH reported 400 cases of advanced black lung found by three clinics in Kentucky.
  • OSHA withdrew over a dozen rules from the regulatory agenda, including standards on combustible dust, styrene, 1-bromopropane, noise in construction and an update of permissible exposure limits.
  • The agency also suspended work on critical OSHA standards on workplace violence, infectious diseases, process safety management and emergency preparedness.
  • MSHA withdrew rules on civil penalties and refuge alternatives in coal mines from the regulatory agenda and suspended work on new standards on silica and proximity detection systems for mobile mining equipment.

The Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy took place 107 years ago today. We have a long way to go to make sure that we prevent the next such tragedy and keep working people safe and healthy.

Trump took credit for airline safety in 2017. What about the surge in coal miner deaths?

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

President Donald Trump is taking credit for what a new study is calling the safest year on record for commercial aviation. The president, however, is refusing to take responsibility for what his mine safety agency is saying was a year where almost twice as many coal mine workers died on the job than the final year of the Obama administration.

On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted: “Since taking office, I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news — it was just reported that there were zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!”

Over the past 20 years, the average number of airliner accidents has shown a steady and persistent decline, thanks to “safety-driven efforts” by international aviation organizations and the aviation industry, according to the Aviation Safety Network, an independent research group. Nowhere in the analysis did the researchers mention efforts by the Trump administration as a reason for the airline safety improvement.

In the coal mining sector, data from the Trump administration’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the federal government’s mine safety agency, show coal mining deaths nearly doubled in 2017. But unlike the aviation statistics, Trump isn’t taking any personal responsibility for the coal mining deaths. What’s more, he tapped a former coal executive with a record of safety violations to head MSHA.

The death of a coal miner in Fayette County, West Virginia, on December 29 brought the total number of U.S. coal mining fatalities in 2017 to 15, according to MSHA’s website. Eight of the 15 coal mining deaths last year occurred in West Virginia. The remaining deaths occurred in Kentucky, Montana, Wyoming, Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. In the previous year, under President Barack Obama, the coal industry saw its lowest number of coal mining fatalities to date, with eight deaths recorded across the country.

A number of factors could have led to the rise in coal mining deaths. The nation saw an uptick in coal production last year. Estimated coal production for the first 11 months of 2017 totaled 719 million short tons, 54 million short tons, or 8 percent, more than production for the same period in 2016. For 2018, though, the U.S. Energy Information Administration is forecasting a drop in production due to a decrease in exports and slower domestic demand.

Employment in the coal mining sector reached about 51,700 in September, about 3,000 more than the year before. But since then, the sector’s job numbers have declined slightly each month.

Under the Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress, mining companies could be taking more risks under the assumption that enforcement will be more lax. The House of Representatives wants to cut MSHA’s coal enforcement budget by $11 million, or almost 7 percent, after cutting the division’s budget by $7.9 million in FY 2017.

During his presidential campaign, Trump reached out to coal miners, telling them that he would bring jobs back to their communities, despite widespread consensus that coal will continue to decline in the long run. In return, the miners have put a lot of faith in Trump to fulfill his promise.

As part of his focus on coal, Trump selected David Zatezalo, a former coal mining executive who has faced criticism over his company’s safety record, to serve as the head of MSHA. Zatezalo, who was confirmed by the Senate in November, retired in late 2014 as chairman of coal producer Rhino Resources after serving in various top posts at the company.

Zatezalo was head of Rhino Resources when the company was issued two “pattern of violations” letters from MSHA over safety and health issues at its mines in West Virginia and Kentucky. At the time, the Obama administration was seeking to improve enforcement of mine safety following the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

Last month, the Trump administration also announced plans to examine whether it should weaken rules aimed at fighting black lung among coal miners, a move the administration says could create a “less burdensome” regulatory environment for coal companies.

Most coal miners understand the increased dangers they face when the government steps back from safety enforcement. But the miners also see limited employment alternatives, unless they choose to uproot their families and relocate.

“We have all witnessed friends and family fight in vain for compensation after suffering from permanent injuries and black lung,” Nick Mullins, an author and former coal miner, wrote in an op-ed for HuffPost last month. “Few people seem to realize the lack of choices miners face. They do not realize that many miners would jump at the chance to earn a decent living without risking their life and sacrificing their health.”

This article was originally published on January 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Mark Hand is a climate and environment reporter at ThinkProgress. Send him tips at mhand@americanprogress.org

Miners Working with Congress to Solve Pension Crisis

Wednesday, October 4th, 2017

Strong bipartisan legislation has been introduced in recent congressional sessions to solve the pension crisis currently facing America’s mine workers. The Miners Protection Act is a response to a growing insolvency problem with the Mine Workers (UMWA) 1974 Pension Plan. The legislation would protect the pensions of 87,000 current beneficiaries and 20,000 more who have vested for their pensions but have not yet begun drawing them. We’ve waited too long to see this problem addressed, and Congress should act now.

The pension fund for America’s mine workers began as a promise from President Harry Truman in 1946 that America would protect the health and welfare of coal miners, who were vital to the country’s safety and growth. In 1974, changes were made to the plan to strengthen these protections. But in recent years, a combination of extremely depressed coal markets, coal company bankruptcies and other factors have caused a significant dropoff in the employer contributions to the fund. In the past two years, contributions to the plan have fallen by more than $100 million, setting up significant problems in the near future, with the fund currently projected to go bankrupt in 2022 or 2023.

Specifically, the legislation would:

  1. Include a provision from the original Miners Protection Act allowing transfers of excess funds in the Abandoned Mine Land program to the 1974 UMWA Pension Plan.
  2. Direct the Treasury Department to loan the 1974 UMWA Plan funds annually to prevent insolvency.
  3. Cap the annual loan amount at $600 million and set the interest rate at 1%.
  4. Require the fund to pay interest only for the first 10 years and then pay back the principal plus interest over a 30-year term.
  5. Require the fund to certify each year that the pension plan is solvent and able to pay back the remaining principal and interest.
  6. Actuarial analyses indicate that the UMWA 1974 Plan would need to take loans for as little as four years.

Learn more about the legislation.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on October 4, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.

The Price for Killing Workers Must be Prison for CEOs

Friday, April 28th, 2017

Every 12 days, a member of my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), or one of their non-union co-workers, is killed on the job. Every 12 days. And it’s been that way for years.

These are horrible deaths. Workers are crushed by massive machinery. They drown in vats of chemicals. They’re poisoned by toxic gas, burned by molten metal. The company pays a meaningless fine. Nothing changes. And another worker is killed 11 days later.

Of course, it’s not just members of the USW. Nationally, at all workplaces, one employee is killed on the job every other hour. Twelve a day.

These are not all accidents. Too many are foreseeable, preventable, avoidable tragedies. With the approach of April 28, Workers Memorial Day 2017, the USW is seeking in America what workers in Canada have to prevent these deaths. That is a law holding supervisors and corporate officials criminally accountable and exacting serious prison sentences when workers die on the job.

Corporations can take precautions to avert workplace deaths. Too often they don’t. That’s because managers know if workers are killed, it’s very likely the only penalty will be a small fine. To them, it’s just another cost of doing business, a cost infinitely lower than that paid by the dead workers and their families.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the incident that led Canada to establish federal corporate criminal accountability. It was the 1992 Westray coal mine disaster that killed 26 workers. The Plymouth, Nova Scotia, miners had sought help from the United Steelworkers to organize, in part because of deplorable conditions the company refused to remedy, including accumulation of explosive coal dust and methane gas.

Nova Scotia empaneled a commission to investigate. Its report, titled The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster, condemns the mine owner, Curragh Resources Inc., for placing production – that is profits – before safety.

The report says Curragh “displayed a certain disdain for safety and appeared to regard safety-conscious workers as wimps.” In fact, Curragh openly thwarted safety requirements. For example, the investigators found, “Methane detection equipment at Westray was illegally foiled in the interests of production.”

The calamity occurred because Curragh callously disregarded its duty to safeguard workers, the investigators said. “The fundamental and basic responsibility for the safe operation of an underground coal mine, and indeed of any industrial undertaking, rests clearly with management,” the report says. 

The USW pressed for criminal charges, and prosecutors indicted mine managers. But the case failed because weak laws did not hold supervisors accountable for wantonly endangering workers.

The Steelworkers responded by demanding new legislation, a federal law that would prevent managers from escaping liability for killing workers. It took a decade, but the law, called the Westray Act, passed in 2003. Under it, bosses face unlimited fines and life sentences in prison if their recklessness causes a worker death.

Over the past 13 years, since the law took effect in 2004, prosecutors have rarely used it. Though thousands of workers have died, not one manager has gone to jail.

The first supervisor charged under the Westray Act escaped a prison sentence when he agreed to plead guilty under a provincial law and pay a $50,000 fine. This was the penalty for a trench collapse in 2005 that killed a worker. There are many methods to prevent the common problem of trench cave-ins, but bosses routinely send workers into the holes without protection.

In 2008, the company Transpavé in Quebec was charged under the Westray Law after a packing machine crushed one of its workers to death. There was a criminal conviction and $100,000 fine. But no one was jailed.

In another case, a landscape contractor was criminally convicted in 2010 for a worker’s death, but the court permitted the contractor to serve the two-year sentence at home with curfews and community service.

Soon, however, prison may become more than a theoretical possibility. A Toronto project manager was sentenced last year to three and a half years in prison for permitting workers to board a swing stage, which is a scaffold that was suspended from an apartment building roof, without connecting their chest harnesses to safety lines. The scaffold collapsed, and four workers plummeted 13 stories to their deaths. A fifth worker survived the fall with severe injuries. Another worker, who had clicked onto a safety line, was unscathed.

Before the project began, the manager took a safety course in which the life-and-death consequences of unfailingly utilizing safety lines was emphasized.

The manager described asking the site foreman, as the foreman and the workers climbed onto the scaffold at the end of the work day on Dec. 24, 2009, why there were not enough safety lines for all of the workers. When the foreman told him not to worry about it, the project manager, who was in charge of the job, did nothing. Seconds later, the scaffold floor split in half, dumping the foreman and four other men without safety lines to the ground.

The prosecutor said the manager’s failure to stop the scaffolding from descending with unsecured workers demonstrated “wanton and reckless disregard for the lives and safety of the workers.” The judge said the manager’s position conferred on him the responsibility for safeguarding the workers and that his conduct constituted criminal negligence under the terms of the Westray Law.

The manager has appealed the sentence. The worker who connected himself to the lifeline said the manager asked him that day to lie about what happened because, the manager told him, “I have a family.”  Of course, that ignores completely the families of the dead men.

It is what far too many bosses and CEOs do. They believe their lives are precious and workers’ are not. That’s why so many supervisors defy worker safety rules.

In most U.S. workplace deaths, the company suffers nothing more than a fine. Last year, for example, an Everett, Washington State, landscape company paid $100,000 for the death of a 19-year-old worker crushed in an auger on his second day on the job. His father, Alan Hogue, told The Seattle Times, “It’s just a drop in the bucket. It’s like fining me $10 for shooting a neighbor.” The state cited the company for 16 serious and willful safety violations.

Federal criminal penalties for killing a worker in the United States are so low that they are insulting. The maximum sentence under OSHA is six months; under MSHA, one year. Prosecutors almost never bring such cases, since the penalties are so low and the burden of proof so high.

U.S. supervisors have gone to jail under state criminal laws, though it’s rare. A New York construction foreman was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced in 2016 to at least 1 year behind bars for sending a 22-year-old worker into an unsecured trench and for failing to stop work when an engineer warned it was too dangerous. The trench collapsed minutes later.

In a similar case, the owner of a Fremont, Calif., construction company and his project manager were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison after a trench collapsed on a worker. The January 2012 incident occurred three days after a building inspector ordered work to stop because the excavation lacked shoring. The manager ignored the order.

“These men, the workers, were treated like their lives didn’t matter,” Deputy District Attorney Bud Porter told a reporter at the time of conviction.

The only way to make workers’ lives matter is to make prison a real possibility for CEOs and supervisors. Lethal greed must be tempered by frightening ramifications. Fines are no threat.  Only prison is. America needs its own Westray Law and aggressive enforcement.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on April 27, 2017. Reprinted with Permission.

Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

MSHA Cracks Down on Repeat Safety Offenders

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Image: Mike HallIn a continued crackdown on coal mines with histories of serious safety and health violations, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has issued notices that 13 mines will be placed in a special stepped-safety enforcement program unless mine owners begin immediate corrective actions.

The mines were notified earlier this month that they were on the verge of being put in what is known as pattern of violations (POV) status because of chronic and persistent safety and health violations uncovered during inspections in the past 12 months. A POV status brings the mine under more intense scrutiny and gives MSHA broader power to stop mining operations and withdraw miners.

These notifications are the first MSHA has issued since it began reforming the pattern of violations program after the Bush administration, at the urging of the coal industry and with former coal industry executives running MSHA, changed the rules to make it harder to crack down on pattern violators. Says MSHA administrator Joe Main:

I have been saying since I arrived at MSHA that the POV system is broken. This screening represents a positive step forward, but it won’t be the only step. POV is on MSHA’s rulemaking agenda, and there are also statutory changes pending before Congress that would further improve the system.

The mines notified by MSHA had an elevated rate of “significant and substantial” (S&S) violations and have been subject to closure orders, including closure orders for serious issues such as failing to correct violations after MSHA cites them. MSHA has established S&S violation rate-reduction goals for each mine that received a potential POV notification. If they do not meet those reduction targets, the mines will be placed in the POV program. Says Main:

Along with impact inspections and injunction actions, POV represents an important enforcement method for MSHA to change the behavior of mine operators who don’t take seriously the health and safety of miners.

This article was originally posted on AFL-CIO NOW Blog.

About The Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

After 8 Years of Bush Neglect, Job Safety Gets New Boost from Obama, Solis

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Image: Mike HallA little more than a year after taking office, the Obama administration and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis have taken significant steps to repair the damage to workplace safety and health left behind after eight years of the Bush administration.

With Workers Memorial Day (April 28) approaching, this is a good time to look at the progress made since the “the new sheriff” hit town. (Click here for fact sheets, fliers, posters, stickers and other Workers Memorial Day materials.)

As Esther Kaplan writes in the Nation:

During the Bush years, the Department of Labor became a cautionary tale about what happens when foxes are asked to guard the henhouse.

For eight years under the Bush Administration, corporate officials and management representatives headed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Bush’s first MSHA head, David Lauriski, was chief safety officer at Emery Mining’s Wilberg, Utah, mine in 1984 when an explosion killed 27 coal miners. The blast,  says Kaplan, “was later attributed to numerous violations at the mine.”

The owners, it turned out, had been trying for a one-day production record…Seventeen years after the disaster, Lauriski became George W. Bush’s first mine safety chief, a perch from which he halted a dozen new safety regulations initiated under [the] Clinton [administration], advocating instead a more “collaborative” approach with industry.

Today, MSHA is headed up by Joe Main who began work in the mines when he was 19, became a local union safety committeeman, a safety inspector in the Mine Workers (UMWA) Safety and Health Department and eventually is director.

At OSHA, Bush’s last administrator, Edwin Foulke, was former partner at the notorious anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis. He so strongly opposed workplace safety and health laws The New York Times labeled him “an antiregulatory ideologue.”

Contrast Foulke with David Michaels, Obama’s choice as OSHA administrator. Michaels is an occupational safety and health expert, co-founder of the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) and epidemiologist at George Washington University.

Under Bush, OSHA and MSHA emphasized voluntary compliance programs over strong enforcement of workplace safety and health regulations. When they issued penalties, the employers often negotiated down the fines, which were negligible to begin with.

Now, both OSHA and MSHA have stepped up enforcement, assessing large penalties against employers with serious, repeated and willful violations. In October, OSHA levied the largest fine in its history-$87 million against BP Products for failing to correct the safety problems that caused a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured another 170 people at a Texas City oil refinery.

OSHA also is strengthening its enforcement program to focus more on repeated violators and to develop corporate-wide approaches to enforcement.  It’s launched a national investigation in the under reporting of injuries and employer practices that discourage workers from reporting job injuries.

During the eight-year run of the Bush administration, not only did OSHA and MSHA put the brakes on new safety and health rules laws in the pipeline when they took office, neither agency issued any new standard unless forced by the courts or Congress. OSHA is now moving forward with rules on silica, cranes and derricks, hazard communication, combustible dust and other workplace hazards.

The Bush administration presided over the repeal of the nation’s first ergonomics standard and made it so that OSHA’s hands tied to set a new ergonomics rule. But the agency now has proposed changes in the injury recordkeeping rule to reinstate a requirement, repealed by the Bush administration, for employers to identify musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) on the workplace injury log.

At MSHA, new rules to limit exposure to coal dust and silica and to address increases in lung disease among miners are top priorities. Main also told Kaplan that MSHA will identify the top risk factors  that lead to mining deaths and injuries and help educate mining companies on how to eliminate them, but not as a substitute for enforcement.

We’ll provide assistance to the mine operators who do need it, .but never as a replacement to the enforcement tools. There was some confusion about that in recent years. I’m not confused about that.

Both safety agencies suffered drastic cuts in budget and personnel (especially in inspection and personnel) under the Bush administration. The Obama administration has restored those cuts and its FY 2011 budget includes some modest increases.

Employers’ rights appeared paramount in the Bush OSHA and MSHA. Today both agencies have established programs focusing on workers’ rights, including whistleblower and anti-discrimination protections and better worker access to fatality and injury.

The Obama administration also is backing congressional efforts to improve workplace safety and health laws, including the Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067 and S. 1580), which toughens penalties, expands OSHA coverage to public-sector workers, strengthens anti-discrimination protections and expands workers’ rights.

It’s likely the same corporate and Republican forces that blocked improvements in workplace safety and health will fight this legislation and each and every new safety initiative.

So this Workers Memorial Day, along with honoring workers killed and injured on the job and demanding good, safe jobs with decent wages, health and retirement security and a voice on the job, workers will continue the fight for strong new safety and health protections.

*This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on March 18, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. I came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When my collar was still blue, I carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. I’ve also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen me at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. I was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still have the shirts, lost the hair.

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