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OSHA Is Bleeding: Shrinking Government and Killing Workers

Monday, January 1st, 2018

Washington Post reporters Lisa Rein and Andrew Ba Trim published an excellent front page article today chronicling Donald Trump’s largely successful effort to shrink the federal government: “By the end of September, all Cabinet departments except Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and Interior had fewer permanent staff than when Trump took office in January — with most shedding many hundreds of employees.”

Trump hasn’t succeeded yet in passing a budget with significant cuts, so most of the reductions have come from hiring freezes, failure to hire political appointees, and increased retirements (accelerated by buy-outs) of disillusioned and frustrated career employees.

While some people who reflexively think that government is bad are cheering, the fact is that these reductions mean less protections for workers, the environment, consumers, communities, children, the poor and just about everything that makes life in this country “great.”

The Impact on OSHA and on Workers

But you’re not reading this to understand the national cataclysm; you want to know about the effects on workers and workplace safety and health.

Anti-government activist Grover Norquist was famously quoted as saying “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

But tragically, what we’re looking at is not just government being drowned in a bathtub, but more workers actually dying in a bathtub.

Because when it comes to workplace safety, cutting the bureaucracy means undermining enforcement, protection for whistleblowers, support for vulnerable workers and help for small businesses.  Some of OSHA’s regional staff state that because of the hiring freeze, OSHA’s enforcement and whistleblower programs are “falling apart at the seems.” The agency is “just bleeding.”

OSHA’s enforcement and whistleblower programs are “falling apart at the seems.” The agency is “just bleeding.”

When President Trump came into office almost a year ago, he implemented a government-wide hiring freeze. That freeze stayed in place at OSHA until recently, when Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta, apparently alarmed that OSHA inspection number had dropped precipitously in 2017, partially lifted the hiring freeze at OSHA, announcing in his opening remarks at a Senate hearing last month that “In August 2017, I provided OSHA with blanket approval to hire OSHA Compliance Safety and Health Officers (CSHOs), streamlining the hiring process to bring new OSHA staff on board in an expedited manner to ensure that OSHA has the necessary personnel to carry out its important work.”

But while it is true that Acosta lifted the hiring freeze for OSHA inspectors, the process is anything but streamlined from what I hear from OSHA staff. Approvals for CSHO hiring are trickling out at a snail’s pace, barely keeping up with retirements.

Second, the agency doesn’t live by CSHOs alone.

I discussed these problems with Lisa Rein, part of which she related in today’s article:

In some agencies, the number of people leaving has been crippling, according to former officials. At the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a wave of recent retirements has depleted the managerial staff at the enforcement agency’s 70 field offices, said Jordan Barab, who was a top OSHA official in the Obama administration. In all, the agency shed 119 permanent workers by the end of September, a 6 percent drop, personnel data shows.

“It’s starting to create major problems,” Barab said. Enforcement actions must be reviewed by supervisors in multiple offices, he said, and if too many months pass, they can be thrown out. “You can’t run an enforcement agency with no managers.”

As usual, with interviews, that was only a small part of how I described the impact on OSHA.

OSHA is, first and foremost an enforcement agency. That means that in order to ensure safe workplaces, the agency must have sufficient staff to inspect workplaces to ensure that employers are in compliance with OSHA standards and other safe workplace procedures. And, ideally, the agency should have sufficient, up-to-date standards to provide a floor for workplace safety. The agency also has a robust compliance assistance program which formerly had a Compliance Assistance Specialist (CAS) in every one of OSHA’s 100 regional and area offices. Because of budget cuts over the past several years, however, many OSHA offices no longer have CASs.  OSHA also needs enough whistleblower investigators to ensure that workers are allowed to exercise their health and safety rights without fear of retaliation.

OSHA has never had enough staff to perform all of those functions adequately. The AFL-CIO reports that if OSHA were to inspect every workplace in the nation just once, it would take 159 years. And the situation has gotten significantly worse. Since 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected, the number of workers in the economy has increased by 50% and the number of OSHA inspectors has shrunk by more than 45%. OSHA had 5.3 compliance officers per million workers in 2016, compared with 14.8 in 1980.

So where are we today and what is the impact of Trump’s efforts to shrink government?

Just hiring inspectors only addresses part of the problem. The hiring freeze continues for OSHA managers, administrative staff, whistleblower investigators and others. And this presents a major problem for workers.

As I said above, OSHA has only 6 months to complete an inspection. One day more, and the gets thrown out. Now, I’m not too worried about OSHA cases being thrown out for running over the deadline. I’m more concerned about the quality, speed and scope of the investigations. Too much work and too little staff will mean a number of things, none of them good:

  • In a quest to keep the inspection numbers up, OSHA inspectors may focus on the “easy” cases. A construction site, for example, will yield more and faster inspections and citations than a workplace violence case, a major chemical release or a case involving musculoskeletal injuries.
  • Just hiring CSHO’s and not filling managerial, administrative or legal staff just moves the bottleneck from the inspection itself, up the ladder.The larger and more complicated a case is, the more levels of OSHA (and Solicitor) review it must go through, and the greater likelihood that it will be challenged in court. If OSHA doesn’t have all of its ducks in a row, the case will be lost and if cases are lost in court because there isn’t enough managerial or legal staff to conduct a thorough review, it’s not just a legal problem, it’s a safety problem. The hazards will not  be eliminated and more workers will get injured, ill or killed.
  • And the failure to hire administrative staff means that instead of inspecting workplaces and managing cases, CSHO’s and supervisors spend their shrinking time inputting data, filing reports and doing all of the other administrative work that would better be done by administrative staff. Not exactly a good use of taxpayer dollars.
  • And even if cases aren’t dropped for failure to meet the 6-month deadline, they will take longer to issue. And being as employers don’t have to fix the problems in their workplaces until the citations are issued, workers will be exposed to dangerous conditions for longer.
  • A shortage of inspectors means that many offices only have time to react to worker fatalities and hospitalizations after they happen, rather than putting resources into pro-active planned (or programmed) inspections of high-hazard workplaces.
  • Retirements don’t happen evenly across the agency. Some area and regional offices are hit much harder than others. But a hiring freeze reduces OSHA’s ability to staff up  in those offices that are having the most shortages.   Either the workers covered by those offices are under-served, or staff has to be temporarily assigned to the problem offices, further increasing the agency’s budget problems.

The Post also notes that the Department of Labor “declined to comment on the current number of OSHA managers but said that new inspectors have been hired in recent months, helping increase the number of safety and health inspections in 2017 — the first such boost in five years.”

This is patently false. OSHA hasn’t had a budget increase since 2010,  and I can’t find anyone inside or outside of OSHA who can tell me what they’re talking about.

Whither The Whistleblower Program?

The hiring freeze also remains for whistleblower investigators. About 60% of OSHA whistleblower cases address retaliation against a worker for exercising their health and safety rights, the other 40% fall under 21 additional whistleblower laws that Congress has given OSHA to enforce — everything from environmental laws, rail safety, nuclear power plants, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and many others.

Until the Obama administration, the whistleblower program had been neglected stepchild at OSHA — underfunded and ignored. Enormous progress was made over the 8 years of the Obama administration, creating a separate directorate, a separate budget item, making it easier to file complaints on-line, increasing staff, modernizing procedures, re-organizing management and reducing the backlog of open cases. Nevertheless, even with significant progress, the program remains troubled and underfunded, and the continuing hiring freeze threatens much of the progress made during the Obama administration with the backlog of open cases rising back to unacceptable levels.

Agencies on Death Row

The Post also discusses the impact of Trump’s — as yet unsuccessful — plan to eliminate the Chemical Safety Board. The reports of the death of the CSB is most likely premature as both the House nor the Senate budget bills fully fund the agency for FY 18, but the threat nevertheless has an effect. Aside from the obvious hit on the staff’s morale, Board Chair Vanessa Sutherland describes how the CSB’s tiny staff has to spend time planning for its own demise, even while conducting its normal business of investigating chemical plant incidents.  And although it’s not raised in the article, it will inevitably make it harder to attract (or retain) talented staff while the Sword of Damocles weighs over its head.

Conclusion

So, you might ask, how does any of this make sense?

Fourteen workers a day were killed in the workplace last year, and the number of workers killed annually has gone up for the last three years.  Workplace deaths and injuries are estimated to cost between $250 billion and $360 billion a year, and OSHA’s current annual budget is a measly $552 million.

The bottom line is that shrinking government is not just about reducing employees and “bureaucrats,” and saving taxpayer dollars; it means limbs severed and lives lost.

Post journalist Juliet Eilperin in a short article in today’s “2018: The Year in Preview” section predicts that “Trump’s war on the bureaucracy will hit some limits — it’s hard to shrink government and also keep it operating.”

But that doesn’t make me feel better.

Because maybe they don’t want to keep it operating.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on December 31, 2017. 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). He has also worked for the House Education and Labor Committee, the Chemical Safety Board, the AFL-CIO and an earlier stint at OSHA during the Clinton administration.

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