Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘OSHA’

Groups Petition OSHA to Issue Heat Standard

Wednesday, July 18th, 2018

Peggy Frank, a 63-year-old California postal worker — and also a mother and grandmother — died last week while working her usual route in unusually hot weather. Frank’s heat-related death was not a freak occurrence, nor was it unusual.

“An average of more than 2.2 million workers in the agriculture or construction industries worked in extreme heat each day,” according to according to a report released yesterday by Public Citizen, in support of a petition by more than 130 organizations for an OSHA heat standard.  High heat — and especially working in high heat — can cause serious heat-related illnesses and death. It can also worsen other conditions such as heart disease and asthma.

The report cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics which concludes that “exposure to excessive environmental heat stress killed 783 U.S. workers and seriously injured 69,374 workers from 1992 through 2016,” and these numbers are probably significantly underestimated because many heat-related deaths are registered as heart attacks. Construction workers and farm workers are the occupations most at risk.

Although it seems hard to believe, almost 50 years after OSHA was created, the agency still has no occupational heat standard. High heat has been plaguing workers for a long, long time — pretty much since God said “Let there be light.” We’ve known about the hazards of heat stroke and how to prevent them for a long time as well.

And, of course, the problem has gotten much worse since the beginning of time. The groups petitioning OSHA — which include Public Citizen, Farmworker Justice, Interfaith Worker Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, United Farm Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers Union and several other labor unions —  tied the need for an OSHA heat standard to global warming which is significantly increasing the risk to workers. The petition noted that

Global warming is resulting in more frequent days of extreme heat, and record-breaking summers are now becoming the norm. 2017 was the second-hottest year on record, surpassed only by 2016. Indeed, 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001…. Record-setting years will be common in the coming decades, as temperatures are projected to increase by 2.5°F (1.4°C) for the period 2021–2050 relative to 1976–2005 even if we aggressively reduce greenhouse gas pollution worldwide.

Groups Petition OSHA For A Heat Standard

Yesterday, more than 130 organizations announced a petition to OSHA for a heat standard that would protect workers from the hazards of high heat.  Joining the press conference were former OSHA Directors Dr. Eula Bingham and Dr. David Michaels as well as former California/OSHA Director Ellen Widess. The press conference, which included the passionate statement of a man whose brother died of heat exposure, can be heard here.

Federal OSHA, which concluded that extreme heat was a factor in the deaths of at least six workers in 2017, has been concerned about the problem for many years. The agency launched a national heat education campaign in 2012, following successful efforts to prevent heat-related deaths among workers cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico.  OSHA borrowed CalOSHA’s  their “Water, Rest, Shade” campaign and developed a cell-phone heat app, that would analyze the hazards of heat for workers in their geographical area, and recommend measures to protect themselves. (Available from the Apple Store or from Google Play.)  OSHA also increased enforcement under its General Duty Clause, which the agency uses when there is no standard. But, according to former OSHA head David Michaels, the Obama administration declined to launch rulemaking for a heat standard due to lack of time and resources while working on the silica, beryllium and other OSHA standards issued during the last administration.

Three OSHA state-plan states — CaliforniaWashington, and Minnesota (indoor) — have heat standards, leaving 130 million workers in the rest of the country who lack the protections of a national OSHA heat standard. The military also has strict heat standards and in 2016, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)  issued the third version of its criteria for a recommended heat standard “which includes the following elements: heat stress threshold, rest breaks, hydration, shade, heat acclimatization plan, PPE, exposure monitoring, hazard notification, worker training, medical monitoring, injury surveillance, and recordkeeping.”

The report and petition argue that federal OSHA’s current efforts and voluntary activities are not enough. The report points out that an OSHA analysis of heat-related fatality cases show that “17 of 23 fatalities (74 percent) involved workers who were in their first three days on the job, and eight (35 percent) victims were on the very first day of work,” because employer did not follow industry recommendations to allow workers to acclimatize, or get used to the heat for a few days before heavy work.

Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA), who spoke at the press conference,  promised to introduce legislation that would require OSHA to issue a heat standard.

The petition outlined a number of elements of an OSHA heat standard, which would reqiure employers to:

  1. Provide mandatory rest breaks with increased frequency in times of extreme heat and significant exertion.
  2. Provide access to shaded and otherwise cool conditions for employees to rest during breaks.
  3. Provide personal protective equipment, such as water-cooled and air-cooled garments.
  4. Make provisions for adequate hydration.
  5. Implement heat acclimatization plans to help new workers safely adjust to hot conditions.
  6. Regularly monitor both the environmental heat load and employees’ metabolic heat loads during hot conditions.
  7. Medically monitor at-risk employees.
  8. Notify employees of heat stress hazards.
  9. Institute a heat-alert plan outlining procedures to follow when heat waves are forecast.
  10. Train workers on heat stress risks and preventive measures.
  11. Maintain and report records relating to this standard.
  12. Institute whistleblower protection programs to ensure that employees who witness violations of the heat stress safety standard are free to speak up.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on July 18, 2018. 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).

Kavanaugh: Threat to Workers and to OSHA

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

While most of the discussion of President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court focuses on the possibility that he will be the deciding vote to repeal Rowe v. Wade or that the will bend over backwards to help Trump out of the Russia investigation, there is clear evidence that Kavanaugh is overly friendly to corporate America, and hostile to workplace safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the environment.

In 2010 a killer whale dismembered and drowned a Sea World trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in front of hundreds of horrified men, women and children looking forward to a day of fun and frolic with sea animals. The whale that killed Brancheau had been implicated in three previous human deaths.

OSHA issued a $70,000 willful General Duty Clause Citation against Sea World and ordered the company to reduce the hazard by physically separating trainers from the whales. OSHA proved that Sea World and its employees knew from previous incidents and close calls that the all of its killer whales were dangerous, and that Tilikum, the whale that killed Brancheau, was particularly dangerous.  Experts also described a feasible means of protecting employees — actions that Sea World in fact implemented following Brancheau’s death.

The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission upheld OSHA’s citation, and Sea World appealed to the Court of Appeals. The D.C. Circuit court decided 2-1 in favor of OSHA. The Court found that  “There was substantial record evidence that Sea World recognized its precautions were inadequate to prevent serious bodily harm or even death to its trainers and that the residual hazard was preventable,” and that there was substantial evidence that there were feasible means to protect employees without impacting the business. The majority opinion upholding OSHA’s action was written by Circuit Judge Judith Rogers. Also supporting OSHA was Chief Judge Merrick Garland.

The lone dissenter, opposing OSHA’s citation, was Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

According to former OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels, “In his dissent in the Sea World decision, Judge Kavanaugh made the perverse and erroneous assertion that the law allows Sea World trainers to willingly accept the risk of violent death as part of their job.  He clearly has little regard for workers who face deadly hazards at the workplace.”

Judge Kavanaugh made the perverse and erroneous assertion that the law allows Sea World trainers to willingly accept the risk of violent death as part of their job.  He clearly has little regard for workers who face deadly hazards at the workplace.  —  David Michaels

Garland, as you may remember was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2016, following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, infamously refused to consider Obama’s nomination, allowing Trump to appoint Neil Gorsuch to the Court. And the lead attorney representing Sea World was Eugene Scalia, son of deceased Justice Antonin Scalia.

Are Whale Shows A Sport Like Football?

Kavanaugh calls OSHA’s action “arbitrary and capricious” because regulating the safety of killer whale shows is allegedly no different than regulating the safety of tackling in football, or speeding in sports car racing, or punching in boxing — things in which OSHA has never involved itself.  And just as you’d have no football if you didn’t have tackling, or no sports car racing if you didn’t have speeding, there would allegedly be no Sea World if there was no close human contact with killer whales.

One problem with this argument, as Rogers points out, is that no one — except Kavanaugh — claims that whale shows are a sport where you are there to see who “wins.”

Or, to put it more bluntly, people go to boxing matches to watch people punch each other, and go to football games to watch one team physically stop the other from scoring. But tourists — including small children — go to Sea World to watch attractive trainers lovingly interact with adorable sea creatures. Killer whale shows are not supposed to be modern gladiatorial contests where the audience looks forward to seeing whether the trainers will successfully keep their limbs attached or finish the show bleeding and dead at the bottom of a pool.

Not even Sea World made the football/car racing/boxing analogy, Rogers and Garland point out. By making that argument, Kavanaugh is just makin’ stuff up — adding his own opinions on matters that weren’t even part of the case.

Second, as the majority opinion points out, “physical contact between players is ‘intrinsic’ to professional football in a way that it is not to a killer whale show.” Spectators can take pleasure from a whale jumping out of the water and doing back flips even without close personal contact with a human trainer.

In fact, the show went on even after the OSHA citation. Following Brancheau’s death, Sea World implemented many of the controls that OSHA recommended in its General Duty Clause citation — and still managed to attract customers to the park — and even to the killer whale shows — without the close personal contact.

Hostility Toward OSHA

Kavanaugh’s dissent drips with hostility toward OSHA and a basic misunderstanding of the act and the principles — and law — behind it. Comparing killer whale shows to football, boxing, car racing, as well  as other “extremely dangerous” sports such as “Ice hockey. Downhill skiing. Air shows. The circus. Horse racing. Tiger taming. Standing in the batter’s box against a 95 mile per hour fastball….” etc., etc., Kavanaugh objects to OSHA’s “paternalistic” intervention because “the participants in those activities want to take part.”

And then goes on to state (cue the heroic music)

To be fearless, courageous, tough – to perform a sport or activity at the highest levels of human capacity, even in the face of known physical risk – is among the greatest forms of personal achievement for many who take part in these activities. American spectators enjoy watching these amazing feats of competition and daring, and they pay a lot to do so.

He then asks:

When should we as a society paternalistically decide that the participants in these sports and entertainment activities must be protected from themselves – that the risk of significant physical injury is simply too great even for eager and willing participants? And most importantly for this case, who decides that the risk to participants is too high?

Not “the bureaucracy at the U.S. Department of Labor,” according to Kavanaugh.

Happily, Garland and Rogers were more knowledgeable about the Occupational Safety and Heath Act than Kavanaugh. They point out that the OSHAct puts the duty on the employer to create a safe workplace, not on the employees to choose whether or not they want to risk death — especially when the employer can make the workplace safer.

Kavanaugh’s idea of making America great again apparently hearkens back to a time before the Workers Compensation laws and the Occupational Safety and Health Act were passed.  Back then employers who maimed or killed workers often escaped legal responsibility by arguing that the employee had “assumed” the risk when he or she took the job and the employer therefore had no responsibility to make the job safer.  Maybe the worker even liked doing dangerous work.  Employers also escaped responsibility by showing that the worker was somehow negligent. (Interestingly, Sea World originally blamed Brancheau for her own death because she hadn’t tied her hair back.)

Kavanaugh’s idea of making America great again apparently hearkens back to a time before the Workers Compensation laws and the Occupational Safety and Health Act were passed.

Rogers and Garland were forced to remind Kavanaugh that the employer’s duty under the OSHAct isn’t reduced by “such common law doctrines as assumption of risk, contributory negligence, or comparative negligence.”

Workers Comp laws, originally passed in the early 20th century, were supposed to be no-fault. It didn’t matter who was at fault, if the worker was hurt, the worker got compensated.  And the OSHAct, passed in 1970, further states clearly and unequivocally that the employer is responsible for ensuring that the workplace is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees,” and sets up a mechanism to enforce the law and penalize employers who violated it.  Even if the macho employee wants to defy death, the law states that the workers may not work at heights without fall protection or go down into deep trenches without shoring. And it’s the employer’s job to make sure that employees are not endangered.

Did Brancheau enjoy her job? Undoubtedly.

Did she “willingly accept the risk of violent death as part of their job?”  Unlikely. And legally irrelevant.

Did she deserve a safe workplace? Absolutely.

Nothing New Under the Sun?

Kavanaugh also objected to OSHA’s citation because the agency allegedly “departed from tradition and stormed headlong into a new regulatory arena.”

Well, first, Congress put the General Duty Clause into the OSHAct to address “unique” recognized hazards for which there is no OSHA standard.

Second, objecting to OSHA “storming into a new arena” brings back memories of the arguments used by previous OSHA heads, politicians and the health care industry when unions petitioned the agency in the late 1980’s for a bloodborne pathogens standard to prevent HIV infection and over 300 health care worker deaths a year from hepatitis B. At that time, infectious diseases were “a new regulatory arena.” Thankfully, Judge (or Justice) Kavanaugh wasn’t around then to rule on that standard. Thousands of health care workers owe their lives to OSHA’s move into the “new regulatory arena” of infectious diseases.

Bad for the Environment

Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette-Mail reminds us that Kavanaugh is not only anti-worker (and anti-OSHA), but also anti-environment (and anti-EPA). In 2011, Kavanaugh was the lone dissenter in a case where Arch Coal had challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to cancel a mountain-top removal permit that had been issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The 2,300-acre Spruce operation that would have buried more than seven miles of streams.  “The EPA cited the growing scientific evidence that mountaintop removal mining significantly damages water quality downstream and noted an independent engineering study that found Arch Coal could have greatly reduced the Spruce Mine’s impact.”

Kavanaugh’s argument is that EPA didn’t do a proper cost benefit analysis. Suddenly becoming a champion of working people and unions (at least when it benefits the company), Kavanaugh argued that EPA had failed to factor in the costs of  putting more than 300 United Mine Workers union members out of work.  Once again, Kavanaugh was making stuff up (legally). Arch Coal hadn’t even made that argument.

Kavanaugh also criticized the agency’s examination of potential damage to aquatic life as an “utterly one-sided analysis.” Perhaps the fish had also “accepted the risk” of living in streams near coal deposits.

One of the judges in the majority was an Ronald Reagan pick, and the other was appointed by President Obama.

Conclusion

Kavanaugh stated at last night’s press conference that one of his legal principles is that “A judge must interpret statutes as written.”  He might have added that to interpret the law as written, one must first read and understand the law.

He also warmly told the world that his mother was a prosecutor whose trademark line was: “‘Use your common sense. ‘What rings true? What rings false?’ That’s good advice for a juror and for a son. ”

Indeed it is. And maybe he could explain to the parents and husband of Dawn Brancheau why it rings false to him that the company responsible for their daughter’s safety should be held responsible for her death —  and held to the same standard as every other employer in the country.

Until he does that, he doesn’t belong on the Supreme Court.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on July 10, 2018. 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).

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).

Workplace Safety: Expect Excellence From Your Employer

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

You should expect your employer to establish a strong safety culture that results in an injury-free, healthy, non-hostile workplace.

Unfortunately, OSHA can only do so much to establish what “safe and healthy” means, or to enforce those protocols. Many people, like those at Public Citizen, recognize that “government protection of workers is far from adequate.”

This means that more must be done than just meeting government standards.

High Standards for Health and Safety Should Be the Norm

Each workplace is unique, so those in charge of safety must identify and mitigate their specific health and safety issues. Hazards also change over time, so safety protocols must be adapted.

The aim, after all, should be to make sure you stay safe and healthy, physically, mentally, and emotionally. That means no workplace injuries, and certainly no fatalities, nor any disrespectful behaviors: expect respect.

What Is a Safe and Healthy Workplace?

In order to make sure you are in a safe and healthy workplace, it’s important to understand what that means. Consider some of the most common causes of workplace injuries: stress, fatigue, falling objects, lifting, collisions, and trip and falls. Are your safety managers addressing these issues?

The environment you work in should be healthy. That means clean air, a clean workspace, good lighting, and reasonable noise levels.   

Management should regularly provide information and training about how to stay safe and healthy. They should encourage and facilitate physical fitness, fatigue prevention, mental and emotional well-being, and healthy eating.

Your health and wellness, and that of your co-workers, are the foundation of a satisfying and productive work environment. Consider that your well-being is also contingent on your co-workers’ well-being. A fatigued or distracted workmate is more likely to create unsafe circumstances for others.

The more rested, clear-headed, and healthy the staff, the safer the work environment will be for everyone.

Be Proactive

You play a part in safety, too. Take moments to stretch, rest, and move as needed. When stress is high, reset with some deep breaths. And keep your workspace clean and free of hazards.

Offer help to other employees who are doing something unsafe. Be respectful of others and expect respect from them. If you see hazards, report them to your safety manager. Make suggestions to improve health and safety. Is there a vending machine with soda, candy, and chips? Request that your employer swap some (all?) of that out for healthier options.

Initiate a walking group or encourage others to join you in training for a local 5 km. Ask your employer if they’ll sponsor you. Get creative in helping to make your workplace a thriving environment.

Know Your Rights, Use Your Voice

Of course, the ideal workplace isn’t always possible in the real world. Some employers simply won’t prioritize employee well-being to the degree they should. When you experience a violation of your health or safety at work, write it down and report it to your employer. A paper trail is your best friend if you need to take further action.

If your employer doesn’t remedy the problem, contact OSHA. You can do this anonymously. You have rights and you should be aware of what they are. In his article “The 6 Reasons OSHA Will Inspect Your Workplace,” Gabe L. Sierra, the managing director of Prometrix Safety Consulting, states, “In many industries, employee complaints are the single most common reason why OSHA will conduct an inspection at a workplace.”

Are you afraid of your employer retaliating? Retaliation is illegal. You can report that to OSHA, too. If you experience discrimination or harassment, you can file a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For extreme cases of health and safety violations, you can consult a lawyer and file a lawsuit.

Just don’t stay quiet. Speaking up can be frightening, but change doesn’t happen if people remain silent. Consider the recent shift toward intolerance of sexual harassment and assault in the TV and film worlds, and beyond, because people spoke up. By saying something, you’re part of the solution, even if that solution takes time to arrive.  

Your Excellent Work Environment

Let’s hope that you have a safety manager who will be receptive to your suggestions and want to work toward an optimally safe environment.

Most of us spend an enormous amount of time at work. Why wouldn’t we expect and contribute to it being as safe and healthy as possible?

About the Author: TJ Scimone founded Slice, Inc. in 2008. His priority has been design, innovation, and safety. The result is a unique line of cutting tools, all of which are ergonomic and feature finger-friendly® blades. Safety is a key aspect of the Slice message and the website features a weekly Workplace Safety Blog.

Workplace Deaths Are Rising. Trump-Era Budget Cuts Could Make It Worse.

Monday, June 18th, 2018

In an alarming development in the world of workplace safety, the latest statistics reveal that the number of accidental deaths on the job in America is on the rise, reversing the longer-term trend toward fewer fatal incidents.

The number of deaths hit a total of 5,190 in 2016, up from 4,836 in 2015, according to an April 2018 report by the AFL-CIO. That’s about 14 deaths each day from preventable worker accidents. It’s also the third year in a row that the number has inched up, and the highest death rate since 2010, the labor federation reported.

Workplace safety systems are “definitely in the failure mode,” says Peter Dooley, a consultant with the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health who was worked closely with labor unions over the years. “In the last two years it is getting dramatically worse. It’s just outrageous.” 

The precise reasons for the rise are not simply stated, adds Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO’s long-time director of occupational safety and health. Overall patterns such as very high rates of injury in the logging and construction industries are consistent over time, she says, and there is no single employment trend that accounts for the recent rise. “The numbers are actually down in construction, but they are up almost everywhere else,” she says.

Inadequate enforcement of existing safety rules is the most commonly cited explanation for the rise, Seminario tells In These Times. A Jan. 8 report from NBC News estimates that the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) employs only about 1,000 inspectors to cover all workplaces in America—and that the number of inspectors has declined four percent since President Donald Trump took office. The number of inspectors is far too low to be effective, Seminario suggests, and OSHA has been “under resourced” for years, including during the Obama administration years.

“Construction is a good example. OSHA has a big focus on construction and construction deaths are down. The areas where OSHA has less interest are up,” she says

The figures cited by Seminario and Dooley are taken from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries published annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The way the figures are compiled is a problem in itself, Dooley says, because it zealously protects the anonymity of employers. That diverts attention from specific workplace behavior that needs close examination and corrective action to reduce accidental deaths over time, he says. 

The National Council’s answer to this problem is to publish its own “Dirty Dozen” list of employers notable for health and safety problems among their workforces. The Council uses a standard of measurement that includes non-fatal injuries and other factors, but the list stands out in that it names some very well-known companies. For example, the online retailer Amazon is on the list because it has seen seven of its warehouse workers killed since 2013. Lowe’s Home Improvement operations have seen a total of 56 deaths associated with paint stripping chemicals. And the largest garbage disposal company in the United States, Waste Management, has had an excessive number of OSHA citations and fines. Other companies on the list are Tesla Motors and Dine Brands Global (owner of IHOP and Applebee’s restaurants).

“There is injustice in the Bureau of Labor Statistics as a totally anonymous database. There is no public record of who is dying and who the employers are,” Dooley says. The information actually does exist deep in the Labor Department files, he adds, but government policy is to keep this information out of public hands, or for use by safety experts. “This needs to be changed,” he says.

Seminario and Dooley agree that the worker safety signals coming from the Trump administration are troubling, even if the statistics are not up-to-date enough to make a direct link to increased workplace deaths. Trump’s budget proposal last year called for a 21 percent cut in Department of Labor spending, and the initial proposal for this year call for a 9 percent cut. Congress pared back last year’s proposed cut, and is expected to do so again this year, but it is clear that current Labor Department officials have no plans to take the initiative against the rise in workplace deaths, Dooley charges.

In issuing its report, the AFL-CIO noted: “The Trump administration has moved to weaken recently issued rules on beryllium and mine examinations and has delayed or abandoned the development of new protections, including regulations on workplace violence, infectious diseases, silica in mining and combustible dust.”

“At the same time, Congress is pushing forward with numerous ‘regulatory reform’ bills that would require review and culling of existing rules, make costs the primary consideration in adopting regulations, and making it virtually impossible to issue new protections.”

The reference to workplace violence represents one of the most troubling statistics buried in the government reports. According to a press release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Workplace homicides increased by 83 cases to 500 in 2016, and workplace suicides increased by 62 to 291. This is the highest homicide figure since 2010 and the most suicides since the National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries began reporting data in 1992.”

“It’s a very complicated problem,” observes Seminario. “You can devise safety regulations to avoid common and predictable accidents. But how do you do that with a homicide?”

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Chemical Safety Board Dodges Trump’s Bullet Again

Friday, May 18th, 2018

But is the agency selling its soul?

The House Interior and Environment Appropriations Committee has not only (again) defied President Trump’s proposal to eliminate the Chemical Safety Board, but the committee actually plans to add a million dollars to the agency’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget.  The Committee’s bill, released Monday, funds the CSB at $12 million, $1 million above the fiscal year 2018 level.  This is the second year in a row that Trump has proposed eliminating the CSB and the House has defied him.

That’s the good news. But in other news-of-the-weird, the CSB and the Chlorine Institute (CI) have issued a joint statement that, while providing some good advice (e.g. don’t scrimp on preventive maintenance), reads like an advertisement for the Institute:

CI regularly updates its written guidance for chlorine producers and users by working with its member companies to determine best practices and contracting external scientific expertise. Additionally, members share best practices during in-person meetings throughout the year. Typically, industry colleagues review highly detailed, technical, and specific safety best practices and together improve their own safety performance and that of the entire chlor-alkali industry. Similarly, there are numerous other industry conferences, classes, and organizations focused on particular issues such as corrosion, non-destructive testing or rupture disc replacement frequency among other topics.

Now, we all love these Kumbaya moments and everything, but remember, the mission of the CSB is to “drive chemical safety change through independent investigation to protect poeple (sic) and the environment.” This is not to say that the CSB shouldn’t praise an organization for its consensus standards or corporate practices — and the CSB often does — but usually based on evidence resulting from an investigation about an incident that is addressed by that standard or practice.

Will this joint statement make future CSB investigations appear to be less independent and less objective in the wake of an incident that involves the use of Chlorine Institute standards?  The impact of Board investigations rests largely on the perceived objectivity of its recommendations and anything that detracts from that objectivity — or even the appearance of objectivity — will undermine the CSB’s effectiveness.

To my knowledge, this is the first time the CSB has issued this type of joint statement and it’s unclear whether the full Board even voted on it.

Agencies charged with conducting objective investigations need to maintain objectivity and the appearance of objectivity at all times.  Joint statements like this endorsing an organization’s practices that may in the future be subject to an investigation, do not generate confidence in the process.

Meanwhile, in other news, CSB staff voted last month to organize a union with the American Federation of Government Employees. The vote was 10 to 5 out of a total of 19 eligible. The CSB has been plagued by internal issues over its entire lifetime and many employees are reportedly concerned about deskilling of their jobs, dumbing down of reports with a focus on the technical causes of an incident, rather than the root causes and recommendations related to the flawed regulatory and public policy environment that can more effectively address the ongoing serious industry incidents.  Close to one-third of CSB investigators left the agency in the last year mostly due to management issues, and no investigators have been hired to replace those that have left.  Perhaps the House budget bill will encourage the CSB to begin hiring again.

Bloomberg’s Occupational Safety and Health Reporter wrote about the CSB’s organizing issues last year.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on May 16, 2018. 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).

Full of Surprises: OSHA Spring Regulatory Agenda Released

Thursday, May 10th, 2018

When Spring is in the air, this man’s fancy turns to (where else?) the 2018 Spring Regulatory Agenda to discover  what movement OSHA will be planning to move forward (or backward) to protect American workers from injury, illness and death in the workplace.

And the news is not totally bad this time around.

The good news from the new Regulatory Agenda is that OSHA has moved several items from the Long Term Agenda to the Short Term Agenda — Emergency Response and Preparedness, an Update to the Hazard Communication Standard, Tree Care, and Preventing Workplace Violence in Health Care and Social Assistance.  The Long Term Agenda generally means that the next major action (such as an official proposal) is more than a year in the future, either because the item has been deliberates sentenced to purgatory, or because there is simply too much work to get to the next major stage within a year. (Katie Tracy of the Center for Progressive Reform has put together this handy chart to save your eyesight and help with translation.)

The other good news is that nothing was removed from OSHA’s Regulatory Agenda. Previously, the Trump administration had removed such important items as combustible dust, noise in construction, several chemical standards and protections for workers at risk from being backed over by construction vehicles.

SBREFA: One Step Forward

The Labor Department has announced an ambitious schedule of OSHA small business review (SBREFA) panels for the next year covering  Communication Tower Safety (May 2018), Emergency Response (October 2018), Workplace Violence (February 2019) a Hazard Communication Standard update (February 2019), Tree Care (April 2019).

SBREFA is a process where OSHA and the Small Business Administration’s Small  Business Advocacy office organize panels of “Small Entity Representatives” (SERs) — actual small business owners or health and safety staff — to discuss the impact of a possible standard on their industry based on preliminary economic and feasibility information compiled by OSHA. Based on the comments of the SERs, OSHA and SBA issue a report within four months of initiation of the panel, which informs the next major stage of the regulatory process — the proposal.

The SBREFA process was created under the Gingrich Congress in the mid-90s to provide small businesses with a first bite of the regulatory apple. (One might ask why the normal public comment process doesn’t provide the same opportunity, and why labor wasn’t also given a similar early bite?)  SERs generally advise OSHA that no new standard is needed, thank you very much. But they also frequently provide some useful information that OSHA later uses to tweak the proposal to address some small business concerns.

Now, this is a pretty darn ambitious regulatory schedule — five SBREFA panels in a year — especially for an anti-regulatory Republican administration. That is certainly a good thing, and especially good to see workplace violence among those panels. But there are several caveats that need to be raised.

First, I’m a more-than-a-bit skeptical they can keep to this schedule — especially since the first one is scheduled for this month.  Given the work involved here, the other smaller items OSHA is moving forward on, and the resources being put into deregulatory actions on beryllium and recordkeeping, plus the 10% cut sustained by the standards budget last year, it’s hard to see them keeping to this schedule. On the other hand, we’ve seen no forward movement on any regulatory items in the first 16 months of this administration, so it’s possible that significant preparatory work has been going on behind the scenes.

The second caveat is that these are only SBREFA panels.  The next major step is an actual proposal, which contains a proposed regulatory text and several hundred pages of “preamble” with in-depth analysis of significant risk, economic and technological feasibility. Written comments on the proposal are then solicited and a hearing is generally held — a hearing that can last days or weeks, depending on the size and complexity of the proposed standard.

Depending on the size and complexity of the standard, it can often take one to three years to get from SBREFA to a proposed standard, and then several years to get to a final standard from there.

In addition, don’t forget Trump’s “One in/Two out” Executive Order (EO) that requires agencies to repeal two standards or regulations of equal cost for every one that’s added.  While I have yet to see this EO invoked, it is assumed that the agency would have to determine which two standards are going to be revoked by the time they get to the proposal stage. Given that it takes almost as much work to revoke an old standard as it does to issue a new standard, OSHA would essentially be forced to conduct three rulemakings (one for the new rule, and two for the revoked rules) for every new rule it wants to add.  And all that is assuming that the agency can figure out which protections workers will lose when, for example, communications tower workers gain protections.

The bottom line is that none of these new standards are likely to see the light of day during this Presidential term. But any forward movement is always welcome.

There are a few small items — revisions, corrections and small updates — that are moving to the proposal and final stages — the most significant of which is the long-awaited fourth iteration of the Standards Improvement Project (SIPS) where small improvements and updates are made to numerous standards in a single rulemaking.

And Two Steps Back

Still languishing on the long term agenda are OSHA standards dealing with infectious disease and Process Safety Management which covers safety in chemical plants. Both of these had SBREFA panels during the Obama administration  They’re both fairly major rules which means a) they involve quite a bit of work to get to the proposal stage, b) OSHA budget cuts will slow the process further, and c) given their likely cost, this administration will undoubtedly be reluctant to move forward on them and hard-pressed to find protections of equal cost to remove. Slow movement on the infectious disease standard is especially disappointing considering news of another Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo., a recent severe flu season and the coming of mosquito season as the weather warms.

The bad news, of course, is that the most significant regulatory movement by OSHA continues to be in reverse with a proposal undermining beryllium protections for construction and maritime workers, delay in full implementation of the beryllium standard for general industry employees and a proposal to roll back some provisions of the electronic recordkeeping standard, which OSHA is predicting for sometime in July.

The National Employment Law Project also points out DOL backsliding in protection of young workers, action at the Department of Agriculture weakening protections for meat processing workers and EPA’s actions that could result in more worker exposure to toxic pesticides.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on May 10, 2018. 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).

15 Things You Need to Know from the 2018 Death on the Job Report

Thursday, April 26th, 2018

For the 27th year in a row, the AFL-CIO has produced Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect. The report gathers evidence on the state of safety and health protections for America’s workers.

Passed in 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act has saved the lives of more than 559,000 working people. President Barack Obama had a strong record of improving working conditions by strengthening enforcement, issuing key safety and health standards, and improving anti-retaliation and other protections for workers. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has moved aggressively on his deregulatory agenda, repealing and delaying job safety and other rules, and proposing deep cuts to the budget and the elimination of worker safety and health training programs.

These are challenging times for working people and their unions, and the prospects for worker safety and health protections are uncertain. What is clear, however, is that the toll of workplace injury, illness and death remains too high, and too many workers remain at serious risk. There is much more work to be done. Here are 15 key things you need to know from this year’s report, which primarily covers data from 2016.

  1. 150 workers died each day from hazardous working conditions.

  2. 5,190 workers were killed on the job in the United States—an increase from 4,836 deaths the previous year.

  3. An additional 50,000 to 60,000 workers died from occupational diseases.

  4. The job fatality rate increased to 3.6 per 100,000 workers from 3.4 per 100,000 workers.

  5. Service-providing industries saw the largest increase in the job fatality rate. The rate declined in manufacturing and mining and was unchanged in construction—all industries that receive the greatest oversight from OSHA or the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

  6. Employers reported nearly 3.7 million work-related injuries and illnesses.

  7. Underreporting is widespread—the true toll of work-related injuries and illnesses is 7.4 million to 11.1 million each year.

  8. The states with the highest job fatality rates were Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota.

  9. Workplace violence deaths increased significantly. The 866 worker deaths caused by violence in 2016 made it the second-leading cause of workplace death. Violence also was responsible for more than 27,000 lost-time injuries.

  10. Women are at greater risk than men; they suffered two-thirds of the lost-time injuries related to workplace violence.

  11. There is no federal OSHA standard to protect workers from workplace violence; the Trump administration has sidelined an OSHA workplace violence standard.

  12. Latino and immigrant workers’ safety and health has improved, but the risk to these workers still is greater than other workers.

  13. Older workers are at high risk, with 36% of all worker fatalities occurring among those ages 55 or older.

  14. The industries with the most deaths were construction, transportation, agriculture, and mining and extraction.

  15. The cost of job injuries and illnesses is enormous—estimated at $250 billion to $360 billion a year.

The Trump administration and the Republican majority in Congress have launched a major assault on regulatory protections and are moving aggressively to roll back regulations, block new protections, and put agency budgets and programs on the chopping block. The data in this year’s Death on the Job report shows that now is a time when workers need more job safety and health protection, not less.

Acosta Refuses To Commit to Preserving OSHA Recordkeeping Rule

Friday, April 13th, 2018

In a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee today, Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta today refused to commit not to rescind OSHA’s electronic recordkeeping rule. The rule, issued in 2016, requires employers to send injury and illness information into OSHA and prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for reporting injuries.

The electronic recordkeeping rule has three major parts, two of which are in effect.

First, it required employers to send in a summary of their injury and illness data (form 300A (Summary of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses) by December 15. A second submission (including information on Form 300 and Form 301), providing more detail about how workers were injured, was scheduled to be submitted later this year. Finally, the rule prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for reporting injuries or illnesses.  OSHA’s intent when the rule was issued was to public post on its website the individual employer data to ensure that workers and the public were aware of companies’ health and safety record. No confidential or personally identifiable information would be submitted to OSHA or posted publicly.

Over the past year, Trump’s OSHA as announced that it’s working on revising the rule. While it had been assumed that the Trump administration was mostly interested in repealing the requirement to send in the more detailed data, rumors have been circulating that an effort is being made to repeal the entire rule.

Yes or No?

Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) asked Acosta at this morning’s hearing whether Acosta thought it was important for OSHA to have access to accurate injury and illness data in order to target its limited resources to the most dangerous resources.

After agreeing that such data was in fact important, Acosta was asked whether he planned to rescind the rule, yes or no?

Acosta responded that “Yes or no answers are somewhat difficult on this,” but “it is also important to respect he privacy of individuals and employees” and then, without answering Baldwin’s question, proceeded to filibuster the time with a long discussion about the non-existent issue of confidentiality.

In short, “yes or now answers” should not difficult in this case, nor is confidentiality a real issue.

First, the deadline for sending in the summary data on OSHA form 300A has already passed (although a large number of employers failed to comply), and as is evident from the form, there is no private data about any individuals.  The more detailed information was to be sent to OSHA by July 1, 2018, but that date has been delayed indefinitely while OSHA determines how to modify the regulation.

While employers do include Personally Identifiable Information (PII) on their in-house forms 300 and 301, that information was not required to be submitted to OSHA or would have been automatically scrubbed out of the submission. When the regulation was released, the agency announced that:

OSHA has effective safeguards in place to prevent the disclosure of personal or confidential information contained in the recordkeeping forms and submitted to OSHA. OSHA will not collect employee name, employee address, name of physician or other health care professional, or healthcare facility name and address if treatment was given away from the worksite.  All of the case specific narrative information in employer reports will be scrubbed for PII using software that will search for, and de-identify, personally identifiable information before the data are posted.

So, what we’re seeing here is not a concern about employee privacy, but an effort by the Chamber of Commerce and the anti-OSHA lobby to kill the rule.

So, what we’re seeing here is not a concern about employee privacy, but an effort by the Chamber of Commerce and the anti-OSHA lobby to kill the rule because they’re afraid that if OSHA collects injury or illness information about companies’ health and safety record, the companies’ information — not the PII — will eventually be publicly released. And that won’t look good for those companies with poor health and safety records. Transparency is great — unless it hurts your bottom line.

In addition, as Baldwin suggested and Acosta acknowledged, the injury and illness data would be used to enable OSHA to target the most dangerous industries. Now that makes sense. OSHA is a tiny agency able to visit only a very small number of workplaces each year, so it makes sense that those inspections focus on the most high hazard industries, and the most dangerous companies within those high hazard industries.  No one wants to waste OSHA’s time, the taxpayer’s money, or an employer’s time inspecting a company that’s doing everything right. If possible, you want to use the data to get to those companies that are putting workers at risk.

But of course, if you happen to be one of those companies whose putting workers at risk, or a company in a high hazard industry, maybe you’re not so interested in OSHA targeting your industry. Better they waste their time wandering around aimlessly, reducing even further the small chance that you’ll ever be inspected.

So could Acosta have said “No, the rule will not be repealed, although as we have already announced, we’re working on modifying it?”  Yes.

Unless they’re really considering a complete repeal.

OSHA Inspections

Acosta proudly informed the Committee in his opening remarks that “The number of inspections conducted in 2017 increased year over year for the first time in five years despite OSHA’s suspension of enforcement activities to provide more compliance assistance and facilitate the provision of personal protective equipment during the hurricane recovery in areas affected by natural disasters this year.”

And, in fact, the number of inspections did increase by a few hundred in FY 2017.  A good thing? Yes and no.

I have nothing against increasing the number of inspections. Thirty-two thousand inspections is a small number considering the huge number of workplaces under OSHA’s jurisdiction, so the more the better.

But, there are some problems with that. Because how many inspections is not the only question. One must also ask what kind of inspections?  A little background:

Career government employees, and especially OSHA staff, are good soldiers. Give them a numerical goal and if at all possible, they’ll meet it by hook or by crook. So if the Secretary of Labor demands that you increase the number of inspections, even though a hiring freeze has caused critical staffing shortages, you go for the short, easy inspections — usually a lot of short construction inspections. And you spend a lot of time out in the field inspecting at the end of the Fiscal Year, and then stay in the office and do all the paperwork at the beginning of the next Fiscal Year.

During the Obama administration, we decided to do something a bit different. We decided to prioritize the type and quality of inspections over the pure number. Because if you’re focusing on short easy inspection to get some numbers up on the board, you may be neglecting the more complex investigations that may be more significant in the big picture — workplace violence, ergonomics, chemical plant inspections — those that may take a long time but are important to do.   We did this by counting “enforcement units” instead of just the number of inspections, and assigning more “enforcement units” to the more difficult inspections so that inspectors or offices wouldn’t be penalized for taking on the more difficult projects.

So I find Acosta’s emphasis on numbers to be ironic, because the typical Republican criticism of OSHA is that it plays a “gotcha” game — just putting citations up on the board. Which is exactly what this administration seems to be doing.   And I understand it. It certainly plays better in Congress to say you did more inspections than that Democrats.

They are the laws of the land. They need to be enforced. — Alex Acosta

The good news is that Acosta again emphasized the importance of enforcement when asked by Committee Chairman Roy Blunt why the Administration had recommended flat budgets or slight increases for DOL enforcement agencies. Acosta responded that

Those are priorities. These laws matter. They’ve been passed by Congress. They are the laws of the land. They need to be enforced. The men and women of the Department of Labor need the resources to enforce them  Over time even if budgets remain flat, life gets more expensive. And so we’ve asked for slight increases to continue the efforts that we’ve done this year. Because as I’ve said, enforcement matters.

Hard to argue with those words.

Tipping Over

Finally, as I mentioned the other day, the fireworks over Acosta’s tipping ruleallowing employers to steal servers’ tips evaporated when Congress included a bill prohibiting tip stealing in the FY 2018 budget bill. Acosta had come under withering attack for not including a damaging economic analysis in the proposal that would have estimated how much money servers would have lost.

But the fix passed in March and everyone congratulated each other and patted each other on the back and sang Kumbaya over this great (and rare) example of everyone working together in perfect harmony.

But Acosta couldn’t quite let it go. He needed to “just put it on the record…”

Taking up the Chairman’s offer for a few parting words at the end of the hearing, Acosta reminded everyone that when the original regulation was issued in 2011, the Obama administration also didn’t include an quantitative economic analysis. (Which was not required because the 2011 version did not make any changes in current practice.) He then went to great lengths to explain again how complicated an analysis was and how they could have made some “wildly crazy” assumptions to come up with a number, but that wouldn’t have served the public interest and Obama did the same thing no one got upset, so that’s “indicative of an unfortunate state of affairs that we’re at,” and anyway employers wouldn’t have kept tips anyway because no one would eat there and employees would walk out  but that’s why I’m happy that we all worked together and we had a happy ending.

And to all a good night.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on April 12, 2018. 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).

Corporate America’s Stealth Campaign to Stop Worker and Environmental Protections

Thursday, March 29th, 2018

Admit it. If they could, Trump and most Republicans would like to just get rid of OSHA, EPA the Consumer Product Safety Commission and any other agency — or law — that protects workers, consumers or the environment.

This is all part of Steve Bannon’s goal of “deconstructing the Administrative State” — making sure that corporate America’s quest for ever higher profits and control over our lives is not hindered by any of these damn government agencies that Congress created when the liberals ruled the earth.

But simply repealing the Occupational Safety and Health Act or the Clean Water Act probably wouldn’t play well even in Trump-America where people still like to come home alive at the end of the day and hate the idea of their kids drinking poisoned water.

So what to do, what to do?

How about just making sure the government can’t issue any new protections: the standards and regulations that put teeth into the laws?

The thriving New York Times has described two of their clever strategies that would do just that.

Get Rid of the Science: “Weaponized Transparency”

The Times reports that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is proposing to “no longer consider scientific research unless the underlying raw data can be made public for other scientists and industry groups to examine.” Pruitt is doing this in the name of “transparency.” After all, what could be wrong with only allowing science where the raw data is available for other scientists to critique?

Well, here’s the problem.

Opponents and supporters agree that the proposed new policy has its roots in the fossil fuel industry’s opposition to a groundbreaking 1993 Harvard University study that definitively linked polluted air to premature deaths. The “Six Cities” study, widely considered one of the most influential public health examinations ever conducted, tracked thousands of people for nearly two decades and ultimately formed the backbone of federal air pollution regulations.

The problem is that this study used the private medical and occupational histories of more than 22,000 individuals.  And if this private data were made available for public review, EPA “would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a federal estimate, to redact private information.”

The bottom line, critics say, is that if the E.P.A. is limited to considering only studies in which the data is publicly available, the agency will have a narrower and incomplete body of research to draw on when considering regulations.

It’s not like no one has ever looked at this data critically. It’s all peer reviewed by other specialists in the field.

It’s “weaponized transparency,” according to Former OSHA head Dr. David Michaels, currently a professor at George Washington University and author of Doubt Is Their Product:  How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health.

This is not just an academic debate. Not only would this policy chill scientific study and make it more difficult to protect workers and the environment, it would cost lives — thousands of lives:

Opponents of the proposed E.P.A. policy say the effort all comes back to the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long frustration over the Six Cities study and a related one sponsored by the American Cancer Society. Those studies, which have been independently evaluated and have had their findings confirmed, underpinned the first Clean Air Act regulations on fine particulate matter. Based on the research, the E.P.A. in 1997 estimated the rule would prevent 15,000 premature deaths annually and hundreds of thousands of cases of asthma and bronchitis.

So who’s behind this nefarious, and not so subtle plot? Who else but the Koch brothers, as well as Exxon Mobil, Peabody Energy and the American Chemistry Council.

Oh, and there’s also a bill in Congress that would mandate the same thing: The “Honest and Open New E.P.A. Science Treatment Act,” also known as the “Honest Act.”

Honestly.

Weaponizing the Judiciary

Just in case restricting the data that forms the basis of protective regulations doesn’t work, the Trump administration, Republicans in Congress and corporate American have another card up their sleeve: making sure the courts reject any regulations that manage to slip through.

One area that the Trump administration has seen great success has been in the selection and confirmation of conservative judges who have passed a critical “litmus test.” Usually, when we hear the words judicial “litmus test” it’s related to the debate over abortion.

But according to an article in this morning’s New York Times, the Trump administration is applying another litmus test: reining in what conservatives call “the administrative state” by limiting the discretion that agencies like OSHA or EPA have when they issue complex regulations.

What does that mean? When Congress passes a law like the Occupational Safety and Health Act, they give OSHA the authority to issue specific standards, and the law provides some guidance for the criteria the agency has to follow. For example, OSHA has to ensure that their standards are economically and technologically feasible.  But Congress doesn’t have the time or expertise to issue the specific standards — like those to protect workers against silica exposure, trench collapses or falls. They leave that lengthy and complex work to the agency.

When the new standards are inevitably challenged in court by the affected industries, the business associations argue that the agency didn’t evaluate the science properly, or didn’t ensure feasibility in the affected industries. The judges, who like your local Congresspersons, are not experts in toxicology or risk assessment, have traditionally deferred to the agencies’ expertise: “You’ve got some science here; you’ve got some science there. Congress says that the agencies have the expertise, so we defer to their decision.”

But not for much longer, if Trump and corporate America have their way. He is appointing federal judges who are “devoted to a legal doctrine that challenges the broad power federal agencies have to interpret laws and enforce regulations.”

Are you scared? If not, you should be:

This approach has shaped what could be one of Mr. Trump’s most enduring legacies, with the potential to dramatically shrink the body of federal regulations and programs that touch almost every aspect of American life — like workplace safety, environmental protection and health care.

If it is successful, the Trump administration could come closer than any Republican White House has to achieving a goal conservatives have longed for since the New Deal: curtailing the reach of a federal government they say has grown far too large and invasive.

According to Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), these ideas have been around for a long time, “but have never been weaponized in the way that Trump is doing now with his judicial nominees.”

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on March 28, 2018. 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). 

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