Trump’s Policies Are Already Making Workplaces More Toxic

Elizabeth Grossman

Occupational fatalities remain a grave problem in the United States. Yet the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that approximately ten times more Americans die per year from occupational diseases. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The well­be­ing of Amer­i­ca and the Amer­i­can work­er is my North Star,” Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump trum­pet­ed at a recent White House event.

But the Trump administration’s poli­cies are already adverse­ly affect­ing work­ers’ health by under­min­ing occu­pa­tion­al ill­ness pre­ven­tion — includ­ing for can­cers, mus­cu­loskele­tal dis­or­ders and res­pi­ra­to­ry dis­eases that afflict hun­dreds of thou­sands of U.S. workers.

It couldn’t get much worse in terms of the fed­er­al government’s role in pre­vent­ing the num­ber of occu­pa­tion­al ill­ness­es and dis­eases,” said Char­lotte Brody, vice pres­i­dent of health ini­tia­tives at Blue­Green Alliance, an alliance of labor unions and envi­ron­men­tal organizations.

Or, as Sid­ney Shapiro, a pro­fes­sor at Wake Forest’s law school, put it, We weren’t doing this ter­ri­bly well under a rea­son­ably friend­ly admin­is­tra­tion so all bets are it’s now going to fall com­plete­ly apart.” 

Deaths from occu­pa­tion­al diseases

Occu­pa­tion­al fatal­i­ties remain a grave prob­lem in the Unit­ed States. In 2015, 4,836 peo­ple died on the job. Yet the Nation­al Insti­tute of Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health (NIOSH) esti­mates that approx­i­mate­ly ten times more Amer­i­cans die per year from occu­pa­tion­al dis­eases. Of the 2,905,900 non-fatal work­place injuries and ill­ness­es the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics (BLS) cat­a­logued in 2015, about 187,900 were job-relat­ed ill­ness­es.

This num­ber, like all offi­cial records of occu­pa­tion­al ill­ness, is con­sid­ered a sig­nif­i­cant under­count. Among oth­er omis­sions, includ­ing very small work­places and self-employed work­ers, these num­bers don’t include work-relat­ed ill­ness­es diag­nosed after some­one left a job or ful­ly account for chron­ic conditions.

Com­bine that with peo­ple who are immi­grant work­ers with lim­it­ed Eng­lish, who are not orga­nized, and low-income, who are vul­ner­a­ble to exploita­tion because they’ll do any­thing to get a job — and they’re less like­ly to object to unsafe work­ing con­di­tions, less like­ly to seek help or speak up,” says Michael Wil­son, direc­tor of the occu­pa­tion­al and envi­ron­men­tal health pro­gram at Blue­Green Alliance.

The most fre­quent­ly report­ed U.S. work-relat­ed health prob­lems include res­pi­ra­to­ry and skin dis­eases along with mus­cu­loskele­tal dis­or­ders. Mus­cu­loskele­tal prob­lems account for about one-third of all report­ed work­place ill­ness­es and injuries and affect work­ers in indus­tries rang­ing from meat­pack­ing to nurs­ing, ship­yards, clean­ing ser­vices, man­u­fac­tur­ing and retail gro­cery stores.

Can­cer is one of the hard­est occu­pa­tion­al dis­eases to account for giv­en the typ­i­cal­ly long time between expo­sure and diag­no­sis. But the most recent Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion (CDC) esti­mate is that past expo­sure in the work­place caused between 45,872 and 91,745 new can­cer cas­es. That esti­mate, which the CDC said is like­ly an under­es­ti­mate, was for a sin­gle year.

Delays cost lives

Con­nect­ing work­place expo­sure and dis­ease diag­no­sis pre­cise­ly can be com­pli­cat­ed. But the links between occu­pa­tion­al expo­sure to sil­i­ca and beryl­li­um dust and lung dis­ease are well doc­u­ment­ed. Cas­es of these occu­pa­tion­al dis­eases may well increase under Trump.

This month, OSHA delayed by three months the date on which its new sil­i­ca expo­sure safe­ty stan­dard for the con­struc­tion indus­try will take effect. This is the first update of the stan­dard in more than 40 years and will reduce by half the sil­i­ca dust lev­el to which most work­ers can be exposed and pre­vent about 900 new sil­i­co­sis cas­es each year.

OSHA says the delay will allow it to con­duct addi­tion­al out­reach and pro­vide edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als and guid­ance for employ­ers.” But the rule has been decades in the mak­ing” and will save more 600 lives each year,” accord­ing to Jes­si­ca Mar­tinez, co-exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Nation­al Coun­cil for Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health.

Major indus­try trade asso­ci­a­tions, includ­ing in con­struc­tion, oil and gas extrac­tion, have long opposed the new standard.

Mean­while, the Depart­ment of Labor (DOL) has twice post­poned imple­men­ta­tion of its rule updat­ing stan­dards for work­ers’ pro­tec­tion from car­cino­genic beryl­li­um dust. Like sil­i­ca, expo­sure to beryl­li­um, used in con­struc­tion, ship­yards, foundries and indus­tries that use the met­al to make elec­tron­ics, aero­space, defense and oth­er com­po­nents, caus­es incur­able lung dis­ease and lung cancer.

OSHA esti­mates that when ful­ly imple­ment­ed it [the rule] will save 94 lives a year. Every four days of delay in the imple­men­ta­tion dates costs the life of one Amer­i­can work­er,” wrote Michael Wright, direc­tor of health, safe­ty and envi­ron­ment at Unit­ed Steel­work­ers, in com­ments sub­mit­ted to the DOL.

Repub­li­cans want the reg­u­la­tion delayed indef­i­nite­ly and are call­ing it a mid­night” rule, imply­ing the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion rushed it through. In fact, the rule results from a process that began in 2002.

Also delayed are Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency rules to pre­vent emis­sions of formalde­hyde, a car­cino­gen and seri­ous res­pi­ra­to­ry haz­ard, from man­u­fac­tured wood prod­ucts, to increase safe­ty at indus­tri­al plants that use and store high­ly haz­ardous chem­i­cals and to increase pro­tec­tions for pes­ti­cide appli­ca­tors.

Track­ing occu­pa­tion­al illness

Trump has now signed two bills that will make it hard­er to track occu­pa­tion­al ill­ness. One undoes a rule requir­ing fed­er­al con­trac­tors to ful­ly report all labor law vio­la­tions. The oth­er undoes a rule to strength­en employ­ers’ work­place ill­ness and injury record­keep­ing require­ments. Both were nul­li­fied with Con­gres­sion­al Review Act (CRA) res­o­lu­tions that pre­vent an agency from ever issu­ing a com­pa­ra­ble reg­u­la­tion. At an April 5 brief­ing for reporters, White House direc­tor of leg­isla­tive affairs Marc Short called pas­sage of these bills a huge accomplishment.”

Record­keep­ing is so impor­tant because it allows OSHA to research what’s real­ly putting work­ers at risk and to tar­get the most seri­ous haz­ards affect­ing work­ers,” says Emi­ly Gard­ner, Pub­lic Cit­i­zen work­er health and safe­ty advocate.

And, says Wil­son, Who’s bear­ing the dis­pro­por­tion­ate bur­den of expo­sure to sub­stances like sil­i­ca and asbestos gets sub­merged if we don’t know it’s hap­pen­ing.” With­out this evi­dence, man­ag­ing the prob­lem becomes harder.

Trump bud­get threat­ens safe­ty train­ing and enforcement

The White House bud­get blue­print” pro­pos­es elim­i­nat­ing OSHA’s Susan B. Har­wood train­ing grants. The Har­wood grants include very impor­tant train­ing pro­grams to reduce occu­pa­tion­al ill­ness­es, like grants that go out to train work­ers in nail salons and beau­ty par­lors,” on expo­sure to haz­ardous chem­i­cals, explained David Michaels, George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor of envi­ron­men­tal and occu­pa­tion­al health and Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Labor for OSHA.

These grants, which cost the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment about $11 mil­lion annu­al­ly, are prob­a­bly the biggest source of work­er train­ing about rights and pro­ce­dures” on pre­vent­ing and report­ing occu­pa­tion­al ill­ness,” said Craig Slatin, Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Low­ell pro­fes­sor of health edu­ca­tion and policy.

Pro­posed DOL fund­ing cuts will also like­ly reduce OSHA’s already con­strained enforce­ment bud­get. OSHA is pri­mar­i­ly an enforce­ment agency,” said Cen­ter for Pro­gres­sive Reform exec­u­tive direc­tor Matthew Shudtz. OSHA’s bud­get deter­mines what the agency can do to fight occu­pa­tion­al ill­ness,” he explained.

For exam­ple, OSHA fund­ing will help deter­mine what the agency can do to update its lim­it­ed and out­dat­ed chem­i­cal safe­ty stan­dards, said Shudtz. These resources will also influ­ence how OSHA uses what’s called the gen­er­al duty clause. This sounds obscure but it’s key tool for the agency’s enforce­ment of work­place health and safe­ty. It allows OSHA to enforce a gen­er­al stan­dard of safe­ty even when rules are out­dat­ed,” Shudtz explained. This is real­ly impor­tant in the ill­ness con­text,” he said, par­tic­u­lar­ly where spe­cif­ic safe­ty stan­dards are out­dat­ed or non-exis­tent. The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion pur­sued such cas­es but it seems unlike­ly that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion will do likewise.

So far, the Trump administration’s deci­sions impact­ing occu­pa­tion­al health are pro­found­ly polit­i­cal, not sci­en­tif­ic,” said Brody.

How some­one gets sick is always com­pli­cat­ed,” she said. And as long as there’s doubt and indus­try can pay for that doubt to be gen­er­at­ed, we don’t move ahead on pro­tect­ing workers.”

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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