Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Battle for Workplace Safety: Short Stuff

short stuff front linesOSHA: The Incredible Shrinking Agency: The number of OSHA inspectors has hit an all-time low according to data compiled by Bloomberg Environment Reporter Bruce Rolfsen. “The agency ended fiscal 2018 with 753 inspectors, compared to 860 at end of fiscal 2014, the personnel data, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, show.” And that means fewer serious injuries being investigated.  “OSHA in 2015 sent compliance officers to investigate 59 percent of the amputations reported by employers, an agency summary said, while preliminary numbers for fiscal 2018 show the response rate fell to 45 percent.”  Flat OSHA budgets for the past several years are to blame, along with the Trump administration’s hiring freeze through the first several months of the Administration.

And it’s not an easy or quick problem to fix, according to former OSHA Enforcement Director Rich Fairfax, who points out that it takes two to three years for a newly hired inspector to be able to conduct inspections by themselves.  The number of inspectors peaked in 1980 at 1,469, about 15 compliance officers for every 1 million workers, according to the AFL-CIO.  By 2017, there were about five inspectors for every 1 million workers.

The Kavanaugh catastrophe just keeps on giving:  Or taking away. Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial appointment to the Supreme Court has left a vacancy on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. And who better to fill it than Trump’s regulatory Czarina, the Queen of Cost-Benefit, the Empress of Anti-Regulatory Ideology, the director of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), through which all regulatory and deregulatory activity passes, Neomi Rao. Trump nominated his deregulatory diva last week.  Rao once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and would be the seventh of President Trump’s court of appeals nominees to have clerked for Thomas. She is a critic of the “Chevron Doctrine,” which requires judges to defer to reasonable agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes, and believes that independent agencies, such as the National Labor Relations Board, need to come under tight White House control. The conservative National Review calls Rao “a fantastic choice for the DC Circuit spot.” Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice observed that “Neomi Rao seems to epitomize the Trump Administration’s slash-and-burn approach to deregulation.”  Last month Rao bragged that federal agencies for rolling back four regulations for every new regulation added. That’s not remotely true, but it shows the kind of things that excite her. The D.C. Circuit is widely considered the nation’s second-most powerful court, after the Supreme Court, and a stepping stone to a Supreme Court seat.

The good news, as Politico points out, “If confirmed, Rao would have to recuse herself from any lawsuits involving regulatory issues she worked on at OIRA. That could sideline her from key decision on challenges to Trump administration actions to undo Obama-era EPA rules, many of which would go through the D.C. Circuit.”

On the Cover of the Rolling Stone: Jeff Goodell writes a scathing article in Rolling Stone about acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, calling him “one of the most skilled regulatory hitmen the fossil-fuel industry has ever deployed.” Wheeler is undermining environmental protections by warping cost-benefit analysis and undermining the science. As former OSHA head David Michaels was quoted “The purpose of undermining scientific advisory committees is to stop EPA progress on clean water, clean air and climate change. By removing independent scientists, they can be sure there is no dissent.”

Meanwhile, also at EPA, Trey Glenn, the agency’s Southeast regional director, has been charged with taking money from lobbyist during his time as director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.  How could the Trump people have known the guy had problems?  Maybe a decent vetting process. “Glenn worked for nearly five years as director of Alabama’s environment department — but his tenure was plagued by numerous ethics investigations.”

Praise the Lord! I’ve Seen the Light: Is that what Elon Musk is saying about health and safety conditions at Tesla? I’ve written quite a bit about the serious health and safety and recordkeeping problems at Tesla, mostly based on investigative reporting done by Will Evans at Reveal.  But, says, Dave Johnson at Industrial Safety and Hygiene News, all of that is in the past. Tesla now has hired a well-respected safety professional to run their safety program, and the electric car company now has 40 full-time EHS specialists, 30 hazardous waste specialists and a health and safety program, that on paper at least, is everything any safety professional could ask for. Tesla, according to Johnson, “wants to have the safest factories in the world, the safest on Earth.” Could it be true? Could all the serious problems and bad press have finally convinced the eccentric billionaire to clean up his act? Could happen. Other health and safety outlaws, such as McWane and Cintas, have made major strides to transform themselves from health and safety pariahs to model corporate citizens.  But time will tell.  Changes at the top often have a hard time filtering down to the production line, especially in a company with a long history of covering up health and safety problems, intimidating workers and pushing production at all costs.

Get Your COSH On: The National COSH Network is holding its annual conference December 4th thru 6th, 2018 at the Maritime Conference Center in Linthicum Heights, MD . The is the main (and practically only) opportunity for health and safety activists from across the country to collect together, learn about the issues and chart a path forward.  The preliminary agenda is here. Subjects include gig workers, engaging young workers, dealing with sexual harassment and the opioid epidemic, knowing and using your health and safety rights and organizing a workplace safety campaign. Oh, and I’ll be dropping in as well.

Injure Workers, Go to Jail: Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr announced criminal charges, including Assault in the Second Degree against construction site superintendent, 39-year-old Terrence Edwards, and the branch manager of Western Waterproofing Co., Inc., 41-year-old Timothy Braico for their roles in a June 2018 incident at a luxury residential construction site in Harlem where a Jekko mini crane fell several stories, gravely injuring two ironworkers. “These defendants knowingly skirted DOB safety protocols to speed up their project, resulting in devastating, life-changing injuries for two workers when a mini crane fell from the fourth floor, catapulting one as it hurtled to the ground. ” One of the injured workers suffered severe trauma to his head, resulting in a traumatic brain injury and the other suffered severe spinal injuries impairing his ability to walk and move.

Lie to OSHA, Go to Jail: Believe it or not, you’re more likely to face criminal charges as a result of lying to an OSHA official than for allowing conditions that kill a worker. That’s what two managers of Extrudex Aluminum Inc., Brian Carder and Paul Love, are discovering. Carder and Love have been indicted by a federal grand jury in the Northern District of Ohio for giving false statements to an OSHA investigator after the workplace death of one of its employees when a rack with hot aluminum parts tipping over that then pinned the worker. The managers are also accused of telling employees their jobs would be in jeopardy if they did not change their previous emails about the company’s safety issues. A Grand Jury indicted Carder and Love with conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and obstruction of proceedings. Love also faces charges for lying to law enforcement. “The grand jury’s action makes clear that misleading federal investigators and intimidating employees will not be tolerated,” said Acting Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Loren Sweatt. OSHA issued a $175,000 citation against the company in 2013.

Tweet of the Week: And finally,

front lines

Automobile Industry Brett Kavanaugh COSH Groups Criminal Prosecution Enforcement Environmental Protection Agency OIRA OSHA Short Stuff

2 Comments

  1. The below is from Occupational Health and Safety:
    Based on the rhetoric from the 2016 presidential campaign trail, it was reasonable for employers to anticipate OSHA enforcement under a Trump Administration to differ significantly from the aggressive enforcement model employed by OSHA during the Obama Administration. The expectation was that a Trump/Acosta OSHA would scale back enforcement, favor compliance assistance, slash OSHA’s budget and staff to limit enforcement, retire national and local emphasis enforcement programs, revise enforcement policies that inflate civil penalties, and otherwise retool its approach to ease the regulatory burden on employers.
    What actually has happened is that:
    * OSHA’s FY19 budget is increasing by $5M from the end of the Obama-era (nearly $560M total)
    * The number of National and Local Emphasis Enforcement Programs remains essentially the same (approx. 150 Local/Regional Emphasis Programs and 9 National Emphasis Programs), including new or retooled NEPs for petroleum refineries and trenching
    * The total number of fed OSHA inspections actually increased, from 31,948 in FY2016 to 32,396 in FY2017 (the first increase in the number of inspections in nearly a decade)
    * Repeat violations (with 10x higher civil penalties) have continued to increase as a percentage of all citations issued by OSHA
    * The number of cases with total proposed penalties of $100K+ reached a record-high 218, increasing by 54 since 2016

  2. Perhaps, you should comment on why there is such a high attrition rate of Compliance Safety & Health Officers in the agency. The burden of receiving all the extra hospitalizations has left the OSHA offices without the resources to cover them. The requirements of making employers report hospitalizations, and amputations to OSHA is one of typically putting the cart in front of the horse. The field offices do not have the personnel to cover them. As a result you have Compliance Officers severely stressed by an overwhelming amount of work and looking to leave an agency that took a wrong turn during Dr. Michaels tenure. The departure of the workforce is a sign of poor management which did not want to listen to comments from the field. A culture of bullying and intimidation is what was accomplished not an increase in safety.

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