I’ve been writing (over and over again) about OSHA’s failure to issue more than a tiny number of enforcement-related press releases since the beginning of the Trump administration, despite the fact that they actually educate employers and workers, and apply pressure on employers who may need a bit of urging to provide a safe workplace. TrumpOSHA has issued only nine (9) enforcement press releases since January 20.
And now there’s more than my rants. Francie Diep of Pacific Standard reports on a study that proves that OSHA press releases make workers safer and what the change in OSHA press release policy means for American workers:
One recent study suggests the prospect isn’t good. Every OSHA press release leads to fewer injuries and to 73 percent fewer safety violations by nearby companies in the same industry, Duke University economist Matthew Johnson found in research he has submitted for peer review. Although Johnson didn’t study what would happen if OSHA halted its press release strategy, he was willing to “extrapolate” from his findings that “injuries might increase if this policy goes away.” (Johnson is less comfortable speculating on any increase in deaths. The way he conducted his study, deaths and hospitalizations were rolled into one measure.)
Although every previous administration, Republican or Democrat, issued enforcement-related press releases, Obama’s OSHA, led by Assistant Secretary David Michaels, significantly increased the quantity and the quality of OSHA press releases.
In the first six months of 2009, OSHA was putting out an average of 13 press releases a month about enforcement. By the first six months of 2016, that number had risen to 44. In fact, Michaels’ OSHA eventually became infamous—especially in construction, manufacturing, agriculture, and other industries that put workers at risk of immediate physical danger—for its press releases. The releases got out the information quickly whenever OSHA cited a company for safety violations, whether it was unstable trenches or unguarded band saws or wobbly piles of grain large enough to suffocate. The releases were often colorful and compelling, with stern quotes from OSHA officials and details such as whether workers killed on the job had children.
Infamous, because some employers hated it. “It was obviously to publicly shame employers,” says Robert Box, principal consultant for Safety First, a firm that helps companies make sure they’re OSHA compliant. “I think that had a lot of employers running scared.” Box ascribes the change to a new Trump strategy: “The new administration wants to go on a different route. It’s more along the lines of assistance, free training opportunities with regards to safety and health, partnerships established between different agencies and employers, things of that nature.”
How that’s different, I’m not entirely sure. The Obama administration also provided assistance, free training activities and partnerships. And strong enforcement and press releases. In fact, the Trump administration is proposing to kill an important OSHA training program, the Susan Harwood Worker Training Grant program.
Some in the business community may not have liked press releases, as Michaels says “No one ever complained that OSHA press releases didn’t work as intended.” Not even Box:
Even Box agrees that they were effective: “It had a lot of employers talking about it amongst each other about the new, aggressive OSHA and maybe that was the trigger to get them to spend a little bit more time and effort on the safety programs,” he says.
Coincidentally, Industrial Safety and Hygiene news also published a piece today on “The OSHA blaming and shaming game: Does negative press change corporate misbehavior?” where they interviewed a bunch of people. Predictably, the worker/union people said that press releases were effective in improving employer behavior, while business advocates opposed them.
Examples included retired head of Ford Motor Industrial Hygiene Hank Lick: “My view is that it is hard to see blaming and shaming as a very effective strategy. OSHA has never seemed to have a pulpit to convince a lot of medium to small companies to see the light.” to Steelworkers staffer Jim Frederick: “I believe the press releases are a statement of fact and the large citations are newsworthy events.”
Then you have the frequently fact-challenged but always entertaining Mark Drieux, a Partner at Arent Fox LLP, “The prior administration at OSHA’s policy of shaming employers was an abuse of its power and unfairly damaged the reputations of good companies. Following a significant citation, OSHA would often issue a press release designed to embarrass the company. Unfortunately, the facts underlying the citation and the press release were frequently incorrect.”
And an anonymous former OSHA official (not me): “Having worked with employers for well over 30 years while at OSHA I always felt, (especially when the penalties were so low) that what really got an employer’s attention and what was successful in making change was the media attention. When other employers saw bad press against an employer in their community, I felt it spurred them on to look at what they had in place and make some changes.”
So what is a small agency like OSHA to do to leverage its resources? You decide. But consider what Michaels told the Pacific Standard:
OSHA is supposed to oversee the safety of 130 million Americans at more than eight million workplaces—most of the private companies in the United States, in fact. Yet the agency only has about 2,100 inspectors, who do about 40,000 inspections a year. “You can’t count on inspections alone to change employer behavior,” Michaels says. “We said, ‘If we start issuing press releases, employers will remember OSHA is on the job and they have the chance of being inspected.'”
Well we didn’t “start” issuing press releases, but we did more, and we did them better, and if they saved a few lives, I’m not going to lose any sleep over embarrassing a few employers who were endangering their workers.