By Shanna Devine, Public Citizen
Presidential candidate Donald Trump promised, “under a Trump Presidency, the American worker will finally have a president who will protect them and fight for them.” This Labor Day, a year and a half into Trump’s term, that claim is utterly broken. The Trump administration is failing to fulfill one of its most fundamental duties, which is to protect workers from injuries, a new report by Public Citizen shows.
The administration, often working in partnership with the congressional GOP and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has scuttled or weakened several standards that help the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protect workers.
These were purely commonsense measures. One ensured that businesses could be fined for failing to record employees’ injuries as required by law for the duration of time that they are required to maintain those records. Another required employers to transmit to OSHA records of their employees’ injuries and illnesses, and would have allowed for non-personally identifying data to be posted on the web. Meanwhile, the administration has eroded a long-awaited rule to protect workers from beryllium, a cancer-causing toxic metal. Perhaps most outrageous of all, it worked to undo a requirement that employers comply with safety requirements as a condition for receiving federal contracts.
Among OSHA’s current shortcomings, it has been without a permanent leader for the duration of the Trump administration, and staffing and enforcement activity have declined. Those hoping for a change of attitudes should the U.S. Senate ever confirm the administration’s OSHA nominee likely will be disappointed. That nominee, Scott Mugno, was recently the chairman of the Chamber’s OSHA subcommittee. That subcommittee’s primary work has been to block or undo standards created by OSHA.
The Chamber’s work to block OSHA rules is diametrically opposed to OSHA’s mission. Standards that address recognized workplace hazards are the primary tool at OSHA’s disposal to ensure that employers maintain safe workplaces and undertake enforcement efforts against those that do not.
In the absence of a dedicated standard to address a hazard, OSHA must rely on the catch-all “general duty” clause, which requires employers to maintain safe workplaces. While the clause is well-intended, it is often used in response to tragedies rather than to prevent them, and it’s more difficult to enforce than standards. Consider the following example. California is one of three states that has a law to protect workers from extreme heat. OSHA has no such standard. Over the past five years, California alone has issued 50 times more violations for unsafe heat conditions than OSHA has issued on that subject nationwide while relying on the general duty clause.
There are many other priorities that Trump’s OSHA could undertake if it were dedicated to protecting workers rather than ingratiating itself to businesses. Health care workers, for instance, suffer more injuries requiring time away from work than employees of any other industry. Solutions are available, and providers that have implemented them have typically recouped their costs in about four years. But OSHA has not taken action.
Poultry workers, meanwhile, suffer from musculoskeletal injuries at rates several times those who work in other industries. But the poultry industry has been pressing for increasing line speeds—a leading contributor to musculoskeletal disorders—rather than addressing the epidemic of debilitating injuries. OSHA has acknowledged those dangers, but has rejected a petition by worker rights groups to slow down line speeds within slaughter plants.
Despite the benefits of regulations for workers and the U.S. economy at large, the Trump administration has repeatedly acted as a mouthpiece for industry and argued that regulations place an unfair burden on the economy and businesses. In the first month of Trump’s presidency, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue stated, “We look forward to working with the administration to identify the regulations doing the most harm.” That same day Trump signed Executive Order 13771, which directs federal agencies to eliminate two existing regulations for every new regulation issued.
This Labor Day, the administration’s efforts to block commonsense worker safety measures has become business as usual.