OSHA Under Trump Is Tight-Lipped—Democratic Senators Demand To Know Why

Paul Feldman, Fair Warning

Under previous Democratic and Republican administration, OSHA has used announcements of major enforcement actions, and the threat of bad publicity, to combat health and safety hazards. (Photo by Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This arti­cle was first post­ed by FairWarning.

In the four months since Pres­i­dent Trump took office, the fed­er­al Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion has issued four news releas­es announc­ing penal­ties for job safe­ty violations.

By the end of May last year, it had issued 199.

The recent ret­i­cence has spurred six U.S. sen­a­tors, all Democ­rats, to ask what’s up at OSHA. In a let­ter to OSHA’s par­ent agency, the Depart­ment of Labor, the six law­mak­ers are demand­ing a review of the agency’s deci­sion to cease pub­lic noti­fi­ca­tion of major findings.”

Under pre­vi­ous Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can admin­is­tra­tion, OSHA has used announce­ments of major enforce­ment actions, and the threat of bad pub­lic­i­ty, to com­bat health and safe­ty hazards.

For employ­ers, they serve as a reminder to imple­ment require[d] safe­guards, which in turn could save work­ers’ lives,” stat­ed the let­ter, signed by Mass­a­chu­setts’ Eliz­a­beth War­ren, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, Minnesota’s Al Franken, Washington’s Pat­ty Mur­ray, Connecticut’s Christo­pher Mur­phy and Pennsylvania’s Robert P. Casey Jr. For employ­ees, they serve as an impe­tus to report wrong­do­ing, there­by pro­tect­ing them­selves and their coworkers.”

The shift in tac­tics was first report­ed by Fair­Warn­ing in ear­ly March. At that point, OSHA had failed to announce a sin­gle enforce­ment action since the Jan. 20 inauguration. 

In April, OSHA final­ly broke its silence, announc­ing penal­ties of $1.475 mil­lion against Atlantic Drain Ser­vice of Boston relat­ed to last October’s deaths of two work­ers in a trench collapse.

A break with the past

Yet by then, accord­ing to the sen­a­tors’ let­ter, OSHA had already assessed more than 100 fines greater than $40,000 — the thresh­old for pub­lic dis­clo­sure dur­ing the Oba­ma Admin­is­tra­tion. A Fair­Warn­ing review of records for the last year of the Repub­li­can admin­is­tra­tion of George W. Bush also revealed a steady stream of enforce­ment news releases.

Anoth­er sign of the break with the past is that the OSHA web­site now includes an advi­so­ry on pre-Trump news releas­es that reads: Please note: As of Jan­u­ary 20, 2017, infor­ma­tion in some news releas­es may be out of date or not reflect cur­rent policies.”

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic law­mak­ers say in their let­ter that the spot­light on vio­la­tors dur­ing the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion ran­kled some employ­ers, who viewed it as unfair pub­lic sham­ing. Lob­by­ists for trade groups and large employ­ers have opposed these dis­clo­sures, claim­ing that the data will be dis­tort­ed’ or mis­con­strued,’” the sen­a­tors wrote. 

But, they added, pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tion regard­ing these find­ings is impor­tant for OSHA to ful­fill its mission.”

Labor advo­cates say high­light­ing abus­es is a cru­cial tool to deter bad employ­ers because OSHA is so thin­ly staffed that, accord­ing to union researchers, it would take the agency 145 years work­ing at its nor­mal pace to inspect every work­place under its juris­dic­tion just once.

OSHA offi­cials did not respond to a request for com­ment on the Sen­ate letter.

What real­ly scares them is get­ting men­tioned in a press release”

Jor­dan Barab, the No. 2 OSHA offi­cial in the Oba­ma Admin­is­tra­tion, said that the $40,000 thresh­old had proven a smart strat­e­gy for boost­ing work­place safety.

Attor­neys have told us that their clients don’t care about low OSHA fines; what real­ly scares them is get­ting men­tioned in a press release,” he said in an email. Such announce­ments also show work­ers that OSHA is on the job and what their rights are.”

Since OSHA’s April 12 announce­ment about Atlantic Drain — which was indict­ed, along with its own­er, two months ear­li­er on manslaugh­ter charges — the agency has issued three oth­er news releas­es involv­ing fines to com­pa­nies in injury cases. 

The sen­a­tors’ let­ter calls on the Labor Department’s inspec­tor gen­er­al to review the change in infor­ma­tion pol­i­cy, includ­ing pos­si­ble involve­ment by the White House and Trump tran­si­tion team members.

Safe­ty reg­u­la­tion delays

The sen­a­tors also ask for a review of deci­sions to delay new safe­ty reg­u­la­tions aimed at reduc­ing work­ers’ expo­sure to can­cer-caus­ing sil­i­ca and beryllium.

A beryl­li­um rule, adopt­ed after 15 years of study and delayed twice since the inau­gu­ra­tion, took effect May 20, two days after the sen­a­tors sent their let­ter, OSHA offi­cials say. How­ev­er, the com­pli­ance dead­line for ship­builders, con­struc­tion firms and oth­er employ­ers is not until March 2018, and OSHA already is prepar­ing revi­sions that, crit­ics fear, will dilute the new standards.

Enforce­ment of tougher restric­tions on expo­sure to crys­talline sil­i­ca, which can cause lung can­cer and oth­er res­pi­ra­to­ry dis­eases, has also been delayed by two months, to Sept. 23.

The Depart­ment of Labor final­ized both rules only after lengthy, thor­ough, and trans­par­ent rule­mak­ing process­es,” the sen­a­tors wrote. In con­trast, the deci­sions to delay the rules were made pre­cip­i­tous­ly, with no pub­lic engage­ment and no pub­lic analy­sis of the impacts.”

This sto­ry was report­ed by Fair­Warn­ing (www​.fair​warn​ing​.org), a non­prof­it news orga­ni­za­tion based in Pasade­na, Calif., that focus­es on pub­lic health, con­sumer and envi­ron­men­tal issues.

Paul Feld­man is a Fair­Warn­ing staff writer.
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