Republicans Are Racing To Make Workplaces More Dangerous and Unhealthy

Elizabeth Grossman March 15, 2017

Among the targets are rules that protect the manufacturing and construction workers the Trump administration claims to support. (Photo by Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images)

Every reg­u­la­tion should have to pass a sim­ple test: Does it make life bet­ter or safer for Amer­i­can work­ers or con­sumers? If the answer is no, we will be get­ting rid of it and get­ting rid of it quick­ly,” Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump said as he signed an exec­u­tive order estab­lish­ing fed­er­al task forces to elim­i­nate regulations.

In fact, the exec­u­tive order cri­te­ria say noth­ing about mak­ing life safer for U.S. work­ers and con­sumers. Rather they focus on rules that elim­i­nate jobs or inhib­it job creation.”

The intent of this exec­u­tive order is go to after Oba­ma-era health and safe­ty reg­u­la­tions,” said Pub­lic Cit­i­zen reg­u­la­to­ry pol­i­cy advo­cate Amit Narang.

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion and Con­gres­sion­al Repub­li­cans are mov­ing fast. And what they’re tar­get­ing for reform” are reg­u­la­tions that pro­tect pub­lic and work­place health and safe­ty. Among the tar­gets are rules that pro­tect the man­u­fac­tur­ing and con­struc­tion work­ers the Trump admin­is­tra­tion claims to sup­port. The roll­back of oth­er reg­u­la­tions will adverse­ly impact Amer­i­cans from coast-to-coast but most seri­ous­ly affect low-income and minor­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties.

Designed to destroy the sys­tem not improve it”

Ahead of any task force for­ma­tion, how­ev­er, Repub­li­can law­mak­ers are busy intro­duc­ing leg­is­la­tion to undo health and safe­ty pro­tec­tions. Many of these bills would nul­li­fy rules cur­rent­ly on hold, delayed by a Jan­u­ary 20 pres­i­den­tial memo freez­ing fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions not yet in effect. Much of the leg­is­la­tion uses the Con­gres­sion­al Review Act (CRA), which would pre­vent an agency from rein­tro­duc­ing sim­i­lar reg­u­la­tions. Oth­ers, includ­ing the so-called SCRUB Act (“Search­ing for and Cut­ting Reg­u­la­tions that are Unnec­es­sar­i­ly Bur­den­some Act”) that the House has passed, would essen­tial­ly put into law what Trump man­dat­ed by exec­u­tive order.

Many of the health and safe­ty pro­tec­tions now in jeop­ardy have been sin­gled out by the Busi­ness Round­table, an orga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sent­ing exclu­sive­ly” cor­po­rate CEOs. The group’s Top Reg­u­la­tions of Con­cern” include Clean Air Act rules, the Oba­ma administration’s expan­sion of over­time pay, rules requir­ing fed­er­al con­trac­tors to report wage and labor vio­la­tions and to pre­vent Equal Pay Act vio­la­tions, and stan­dards for employ­er-spon­sored well­ness pro­grams. This wish-list was sent to Nation­al Eco­nom­ic Coun­cil direc­tor Gary Cohn in a Feb­ru­ary 22 let­ter from the Busi­ness Round­table lead­er­ship, a group that includes top exec­u­tives from JP Mor­gan Chase, Lock­heed Mar­tin, Dow Chem­i­cal, Hon­ey­well and East­man Chemical. 

These are the guys whose base­ball team Don­ald Trump wants to be picked for,” quipped Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land School of Law pro­fes­sor Rena Stein­zor, who served as legal advi­sor to the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion and sev­er­al House committees.

Stand­ing by on Feb­ru­ary 24 at the exec­u­tive order sign­ing event were exec­u­tives from many of these same com­pa­nies, among them Dow Chem­i­cal, Lock­heed Mar­tin, Archer Daniels Mid­land, 3M, John­son & John­son, Inter­na­tion­al Paper and Unit­ed Tech­nolo­gies. When asked for an exam­ple of a reg­u­la­tion they would like to see repealed, sev­en of the nine com­pa­nies present declined to do so. The two oth­ers were not con­tact­ed. (In addi­tion, two more com­pa­nies the White House list­ed as at the event — Campbell’s and U.S. Steel — said they had not, in fact, been present.)

Inter­na­tion­al Paper expressed inter­est in clar­i­ty” around reg­u­la­tion of car­bon emis­sions from bio­mass, changes in truck and freight rail poli­cies and a com­plete over­haul” of inter­na­tion­al tax rules, but did not name any spe­cif­ic reg­u­la­tions. Dow sent a state­ment with a com­ment from its chair­man and CEO Andrew Liv­eris say­ing, there is real meat on the bones, with respect to the work this White House is doing with busi­ness lead­ers, such as the man­u­fac­tur­ing group of CEOs.”

Says Nat­ur­al Resources Defense Coun­cil gov­ern­ment affairs direc­tor, David Gold­ston, These guys have an aggres­sive­ly anti-reg­u­la­to­ry agen­da. It’s designed to destroy the sys­tem not improve it.”

Fed­er­al leg­is­la­tion is a safe­ty net”

Cur­rent­ly on hold are rules to reduce air pol­lu­tion and work­place expo­sure to the car­cino­genic met­al beryl­li­um, and to clar­i­fy the Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Administration’s (OSHA) author­i­ty to hold employ­ers to their oblig­a­tion to main­tain records of work­place injuries and ill­ness. Anoth­er rule on hold would require indus­tri­al facil­i­ties that use or dis­trib­ute haz­ardous chem­i­cals to improve safe­ty and emer­gency response plans. With the excep­tion of the beryl­li­um rule, all are also now the sub­ject of CRA leg­is­la­tion to undo them. And some of these bills are mov­ing quick­ly — pass­ing on heav­i­ly par­ty-line votes.

Specif­i­cal­ly, rules on hold would bring com­mu­ni­ties in at least 15 states into com­pli­ance with exist­ing Clean Air Act stan­dards, par­tic­u­lar­ly for ozone and fine par­tic­u­late mat­ter (PM 2.5), both of which can cause breath­ing prob­lems, includ­ing lung dam­age, chron­ic obstruc­tive pul­monary dis­ease and asth­ma. Accord­ing to the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA), these mea­sures pro­vide ben­e­fits that vast­ly exceed com­pli­ance costs,” by more than 30-to‑1. And, says the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion (CDC), asth­ma affects 1 in 11 U.S. chil­dren and 1 in 12 U.S. adults, cost­ing the Unit­ed States an esti­mat­ed $56 bil­lion annually.

On March 2, the EPA with­drew its rule requir­ing oil and gas com­pa­nies to report methane emis­sions. Research led by the EPA has found that reduc­ing emis­sions of methane, a potent green­house gas that con­tributes to ozone for­ma­tion, can sub­stan­tial­ly reduce deaths from heart and lung disease.

Also increas­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of more lung dis­ease is delay of the OSHA’s new beryl­li­um expo­sure lim­its. Reduced for the first time in 40 years, the rule aims to pre­vent chron­ic, incur­able beryl­li­um dis­ease and lung can­cer among the approx­i­mate­ly 62,000 work­ers in the 7,300 work­places indus­tri­al work­places nation­wide that use beryl­li­um. It would also pro­tect these work­ers’ fam­i­lies from being exposed through dust on cloth­ing and vehicles.

Also now on hold and the object of CRA leg­is­la­tion in both the House and Sen­ate is the EPA’s Risk Man­age­ment Plan rule. Estab­lished in the wake of the 2013 West, Texas fer­til­iz­er plant dis­as­ter, it requires the country’s approx­i­mate­ly 12,500 indus­tri­al facil­i­ties that use or dis­trib­ute cer­tain haz­ardous chem­i­cals to enhance emer­gency man­age­ment and safe­ty plans. Indus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives have called the rule cost­ly and unnec­es­sary.” They’ve also sug­gest­ed, erro­neous­ly, that the rule would endan­ger Amer­i­cans by requir­ing that com­pa­nies release sen­si­tive infor­ma­tion about chem­i­cals at their facil­i­ties. In fact, this pro­vi­sion — designed to inform first respon­ders — leaves infor­ma­tion-shar­ing details to plant own­ers and oper­a­tors. Unaware of the chem­i­cal haz­ards they were encoun­ter­ing, West, Texas fire­fight­ers lost their lives when a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion became calamitous.

It’s the man­u­fac­tur­ing, work­ing com­mu­ni­ties that get hurt when these things go wrong — work­ers, fam­i­lies, first respon­ders,” says Mike Wil­son, nation­al direc­tor of the Blue­Green Alliance’s occu­pa­tion­al and envi­ron­men­tal health pro­gram, who spent 13 years work­ing as a fire­fight­er, para­medic and EMT.

The fed­er­al leg­is­la­tion is a safe­ty net to make sure all com­pa­nies are keep­ing up with stan­dards, not just those that have moved ahead vol­un­tar­i­ly,” says Wil­son. When you’re han­dling mil­lions of pounds of haz­ardous mate­ri­als, the lag­gards are gen­uine threats to pub­lic safe­ty work­er safe­ty and to safe­ty of first respon­ders. And their errors aren’t con­fined to com­pa­ny property.”

On March 13, EPA Admin­is­tra­tor Scott Pruitt, sid­ing with a peti­tion from an indus­try group that includes the Amer­i­can Chem­istry Coun­cil, Amer­i­can Petro­le­um Insti­tute and U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, announced that the rule will be recon­sid­ered and reopened for pub­lic com­ment. The peti­tion, which also asks that the rule be rescind­ed, was filed just sev­en work­ing days after Pruitt’s con­fir­ma­tion by the same busi­ness­es sup­port­ing the CRA bill intro­duced in the House by Okla­homa Repub­li­can Mark­wayne Mullin and in the Sen­ate by Oklahoma’s James Inhofe.

At the same time, the House has already passed CRA leg­is­la­tion that would undo OSHA’s rule clar­i­fy­ing how employ­ers keep records of seri­ous work­place injury and ill­ness­es, and both the House and Sen­ate have negat­ed the rule requir­ing fed­er­al con­trac­tors to ful­ly dis­close wage and oth­er labor, includ­ing work­place safe­ty, violations.

Six­ty-six labor advo­ca­cy groups—includ­ing the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Team­sters, Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union, Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers Inter­na­tion­al Union and Unit­ed Auto­mo­bile, Aero­space and Agri­cul­tur­al Imple­ment Work­ers of Amer­i­ca — wrote to House lead­er­ship oppos­ing the leg­is­la­tion to repeal the new record­keep­ing rule.

This res­o­lu­tion,” the groups said, will under­mine work­place health and safe­ty in the most dan­ger­ous industries.”

The same can be said of dozens of bills Repub­li­cans are now push­ing through Con­gress with White House support.

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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