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Wednesday, Nov 23, 2016, 12:46 pm

Will Workplace Safety Survive a Trump Presidency?

BY Elizabeth Grossman

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Occupational health and safety advocates are concerned about what will happen to OSHA’s already small budget under the Trump administration and the new Republican-controlled Congress. (Ianqui Doodle/ Flickr)  

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump repeatedly promised to bring back U.S. factory jobs. The message resonated with blue-collar workers and Trump’s success is credited, in large part, to voters who have seen their jobs disappear and livelihoods diminish as U.S. manufacturing companies moved toward automation or just plain moved—to places with lower labor costs, like Mexico. Trump also campaigned on a promise to eliminate regulations, a position now central to his incoming administration’s policies.

Trump’s transition team has said he will introduce a moratorium on new regulations and cancel executive orders and regulations “that kill jobs and bloat government.”

We don’t yet know his picks to head the Department of Labor or Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but those reported under consideration for Secretary of Labor have expressed opposition to Obama administration policies, such as paid family leave and requirements widely considered to increase pay equity for women and workers of color.

How does Trump’s promise to reduce and eliminate regulations square with creating good, living-wage jobs? How will his presidency affect workplace health and safety? What will happen to the gains made during the Obama administration?

“Obviously the landscape has shifted dramatically and the position that we’re in and the challenges that we’re going to be facing are monumental. I don’t think there’s any question about that,” said Peg Seminario, safety and health director at the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

She expects the Trump administration “will use the full range of its executive authority to reverse, weaken or appeal any of the major rules that have come out of the agencies.” That said, while an incoming administration can simply undo executive orders and indefinitely delay rules not yet in effect, existing rules and laws must be changed through the same processes that created them. Still, Seminario expects Congress will try to use the Congressional Review Act. This law, which has only been used once in 20 years, can be used to stop regulations the previous administration issued after May 30.

Protections on the chopping block

Among the Obama administration policies that may be vulnerable, said Seminario, are the Department of Labor’s overtime rule, the proposed beryllium rule and the just-issued walking-working surfaces and fall protection rule. She’s also concerned about the fate of new rules requiring more thorough reporting of workplace injuries and the right of nonunion workers to be accompanied by a representative or advocate during workplace inspections.

The overtime rule, due to go into effect on December 1, was temporarily blocked Tuesday by a federal judge in Texas who granted an injunction that will delay the rule’s implementation while it’s being litigated. The case was brought by a coalition of states and business groups that claim the rule is too costly for small businesses.

National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) co-executive director Marcy Goldstein-Gelb expressed concern about the future of the Obama administration’s Department of Labor policy on wage theft, which focuses on clarifying who’s an employee and who’s an independent contractor. This distinction is becoming increasingly important to protecting workers’ rights. Goldstein-Gelb is also worried about what Trump’s stance on immigration will mean for worker safety and workers’ rights.

“All workers, regardless of background or immigration status, have a right to come home safe,” said Goldstein-Gelb. And workplace safety, she explained, often means workers speaking up about their concerns. “In order for people to speak up, we can’t have employers pick and choose who they’re going to listen to,” she said.

There is also concern among occupational health and safety advocates about what will happen to OSHA’s already small budget under the Trump administration and the new Republican-controlled Congress.

“We’re expecting big budget cuts,” said Seminario. “We don’t know how deep or how extreme but they could be devastating.”

The business perspective

In his post-election statement, Thomas J. Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S Chamber of Commerce said the “number one goal of the Chamber’s political program this cycle was to save the pro-business majority in the Senate. Yesterday voters agreed, and chose pro-business majorities in the Senate and the House to represent them in Washington.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is on the record opposing the Labor Department's new overtime rule, OSHA’s new limit on silica exposure and the expanded workplace injury reporting requirements.

However, other members of the business community consider regulations that protect employees, health and the environment beneficial to companies’ success. 

“We think that the economy needs some rules and guardrails to ensure its success,” said Richard Eidlin, co-founder and vice-president of policy and campaigns at the American Sustainable Business Council, which represents more than 200,000 businesses.

“We’re advocating for family medical leave, paid sick leave, retirement security,” and for policies that “use transparency as a force for behavioral change,” he said. “We’re concerned that could go by the wayside.”

But Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment at United Steelworkers, reminded us that such policies won’t go away without a fight.

“We know a lot of our members voted for Trump,” he said. “But none of our members voted for him because they wanted more dangerous workplaces.

“If Trump, having won with the votes of working people, attacks them, he does that at his peril,” Wright said.

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Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

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