2023 year in review

Happy New Year.

It’s time to look back on the events of 2023 before they’re permanently buried beneath the tragic wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, the rise and fall of inflation, Trump’s indictments and his deteriorating mental state, the bloody battles for Speaker of the House, the downfall of the cult formerly known as the Republican party, the looming 2024 elections, catastrophic fires in Hawaii, George Santos and Taylor Swift.

Yes it’s been a year where Republicans and their business allies have attempted to make America great again by making child labor, surgical masks, heat related illness, unrestrained capitalism and workplace death great again

Are there are any lessons to learn from 2023 that can be applied to 2024?

Now sit back and travel with us back to those innocent, hopeful days of the bygone year.

1. OSHA Enforcement Picks Up

year in review
Source: Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Lets start with some good news. After being hit by OSHA’s failure to hire inspectors during the Trump administration, and the inability of OSHA inspectors to visit many workplaces during COVID-19, OSHA’s enforcement program is rebounding.

Enforcement is important and OSHA is handicapped by its small size. OSHA is a tiny agency with a paltry budget — and an enormous mandate:  the safety and health of 158 million workers at more than 10.9 million workplaces.

2022 saw saw an increase over 2021 in fatalities and an increase in the workplace death rate. The AFL-CIO estimates that if OSHA were to inspect every workplace in the country just once, it would take 190 years. So the agency needs to make sure that its scarce resources are well targeted to make the maximum impact.

To that end, OSHA has hit new enforcement records this year

  • OSHA has issued the most high-penalty inspections in Fiscal Year (FY) 2023: The agency issued 276 citations over $100,000 and 101 citations over  $250,000. In FY 2022, the agency issued only 184 over $100,000 and 51 over $250,000.
  • OSHA issued more willful violations in FY 2023 than in previous years: The agency issued 605 willful violations in FY 2023, compared with 510 last year. The previous high was 583 in 2015 and in 2016.
  • OSHA conducted 287 Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP) Inspections in FY 2023. The previous high was 108 in FY 2016. SVEP concentrates resources on inspecting employers who have demonstrated indifference to their OSH Act obligations by committing willful, repeated, or failure-to-abate violations. Enforcement actions for severe violator cases include mandatory follow-up inspections.

Congressionally set OSHA penalties still remain very low compared with agencies like EPA, and have little chance of impact the bottom line of the largest companies. Nevertheless, large penalties, and especially willful violations, send an important message to employers large and small that cutting corners on worker safety and health will not be tolerated.

Now if Congress would only change OSHA’s law to make criminal prosecutions easier….

2. Little Regulatory “Progress” at OSHA

Unfortunately it wasn’t all good news over at OSHA.

To put it succinctly, no one will ever lose money betting on the slowness of OSHA’s regulatory process.

By the end of the first Biden term, this Administration will have issued no major health or safety standards.

This is not new news, but it is still upsetting that by the end of the first Biden term, this Administration will have issued no major health or safety standards. Dedicated Confined Space readers know that one area Biden’s OSHA that I’ve criticized most is their regulatory strategy and accomplishments.

And no one is happier about this lack of progress than the American business community. Thanks to their well funded, decades-long campaign and generous funding for the Republican party (and some Supreme Court members), the word “regulation” has acquired a bad taste in the mouths of many Americans.

But if you substitute the more accurate word “protection” for the explicative “regulation,” you’ll understand that OSHA, environmental and consumer protection regulations are often the only way to protect American citizens against the harmful and often deadly impact of unrestrained American capitalism.

And that’s OSHA’s main mission: helping to protect workers by issuing legally binding health and safety standards and then using their enforcement tools to ensure that employers comply.

It’s not all bad news. Even though no major health and safety standards will be issued during this term, the Biden administration will hopefully have issued two important procedural regulations early next year. The first is an expansion of OSHA’s injury and illness reporting requirements which was issued in July and takes effect in 2024. Since 2016, many employers had been required to send in to OSHA a summary of injuries and illnesses in their workplaces over the past year. OSHA will now be able to get more detailed injury reports from 50,000 large worksites with details on about 750,000 cases each year, and those reports will be posted on OSHA’s webpage.

The second important regulation, which will hopefully be issued in early 2024, is a clarification of OSHA’s inspection walkaround policy that will allow workers to choose their walkaround representatives during OSHA inspection, even if they are not represented by a union.

But workplace violence? Infectious diseases? Process Safety Management? Emergency Response? Tree Care? Heat? All no shows. OSHA’s strategy was to spread the resources around a bit and issue a bunch of regulatory proposals that could be finalized early in the second Biden term.

But there are two problems here: First, what if there isn’t a 2nd Biden term? Trump will never finalize any of these and likely take most of them off the regulatory agenda. Republicans these days don’t do workplace safety or environmental rules.

The second problem is that it’s looking more and more unlikely that we’ll even see proposals for most of these before the end of Biden’s first term.

Now I’m not putting all the blame on OSHA or OSHA’s current leadership, and certainly not on its dedicated and hard-working professional staff. First, no matter who is in charge, it takes many years — sometimes decades — to issue major OSHA standards. OSHA’s regulatory process is a victim of the requirements of the 1970 OSHAct, and numerous adverse court decisions, time consuming Executive Orders and hostile laws emerging since then, all of which have slowed the process to a crawl.

Second, OSHA was understandably 200% focused on COVID-19 during Biden’s first year — two emergency temporary standards (one overturned by the Supreme Court), and then an ill-fated focus on a COVID-19 in health care standard (instead of just focusing their infectious disease resources on a comprehensive infectious disease standard.)

Finally, OSHA is critically underfunded. OSHA’s regulatory budget is only $20.1 million. In FY 2011, twelve years ago,  it was almost 20.3 million. It then fell to $20 million in FY 2016, and then Trump cut it back by 10% and it only recovered to just above its 2016 level this fiscal year.  And funding for the DOL Solicitors Office, which is an integral part of OSHA standard setting process, is also suffering.

Finally, the prospects for OSHA’s budget (like the rest of the federal budget) doesn’t look real good in the near future.

But all of those systemic problems with OSHA’s regulatory process make it even more important for the agency to focus its meagre resources on permanent change — final standards — that can’t be easily undone by future Administrations that are hostile to worker safety.

3. The War on OSHA — and Workers — Continues

Despite the fact that almost 5,500 workers continue to die each year in workplace incidents, and tens of thousands more die of workplace disease, the House Republican’s scorched-earth budget proposes to cut OSHA funding by $95 million, a 15% reduction that would bring the agency’s funding level down to $537 million. And that was before the MAGA radicals in the House proposed more across-the-board federal government budget cuts.

To put this in perspective, President Biden had proposed a 17% increase in OSHA’s FY 2024 budget.

OSHA’s budget hasn’t been at a low level that low since 2009 (aside from the sequestration year of 2013 when OSHA’s budget was cut to $535 million).

Miller accused OSHA of targeting farmers “in your quest for power,” using a future OSHA heat standard to shut down the agriculture industry “because it’s hot outside.”

But even that wasn’t good enough for Illinois Republican Mary Miller who submitted an amendment to OSHA’s budget bill that would cut OSHA Assistant Secretary Doug Parker’s salary to $1. A year.  Another that would zero out OSHA’s entire budget.

Miller was still angry about OSHA’s 2021 COVID-19 “test or vaccinate” emergency standard, castigating Parker for being  “an unelected bureaucrat and you do not have the power to force 84 million people to take an experimental vaccine or show their papers! You tried to fire 84 million workers!”

She went on to call Parker “inept” and accused him of terrorizing our economy. And for good measure, Miller accused OSHA of targeting farmers “in your quest for power,” using a future OSHA heat standard to shut down the agriculture industry “because it’s hot outside.”

year in review And just for good measure,  Louisiana Republican Clay Higgins submitted an amendment that would reduce MSHA Assistant Secretary Chris Williamson’s salary t0 $1 because Higgins was angry about an MSHA enforcement case in his district.

Meanwhile, the business community is waging an all-out frontal assault at OSHA’s ability to issue any regulations or enforce the law (along with attacks on all government worker, environmental and consumer protections.)  The overall theme of the lawsuits is that Congress — and only Congress should have the right to authorize or approve any OSHA standards or other agency’s regulations, despite laws (and previous court decisions) clearly giving OSHA (or EPA) authority to issue protective regulations.

One lawsuit would have taken away OSHA’s legal ability to issue any safety standards (which happily failed in court). Others attempt to take away the ability of any executive branch like OSHA to issue any regulation, turning the responsibility over to the elected Representatives in Congress (politicians), rather than the pointy-headed bureaucrats (experts and political appointees in the agencies.)

For example, if a 50 year old law didn’t specifically authorize OSHA to issue a silica standard, or standards to protect workers against COVID-19 or other infectious diseases, then the agency would not be able to act without explicit Congressional approval.

(Note: I worked in Congress. If it was up to Congress to write or approve all future OSHA and EPA regs, there would never be another health, safety or environmental standard.)

Another legislative proposal would require Congress to approve every OSHA or EPA regulation before it takes effect. All Congress would have to do is nothing (which it’s good at) in order to throw years or decades of work down the toilet.

If successful, these initiatives, taken together, would effectively declare most of the federal government to be unconstitutional  According to conservative Washington Post columnist Henry Olson, these measures “would be only one step in a long effort to return genuine power to Congress and thereby enhance democratic legitimacy.”

Another thing that would be enhanced: preventable illness and death.

4. The Heat Is On, but the Death Star Awaits

2023 will likely go down on record as the hottest year in human history. That fact was not lost on thousands of American workers who died or got sick after working all day under a broiling sun or in overheated buildings.

Sounds like a job for OSHA.

Unfortunately, the agency may be years away from issuing a national standard to protect workers from heat-related illness and death on the job. On the other hand, public awareness of the problem is skyrocketing. So is political activity — not all of it good.

Part of the reason for increased public attention are some well-publicized worker illnesses and deaths. Almost every day during the summer, newspapers across the country chronicled the heat hazards that workers are increasingly facing. The Miami Herald, for example,  has told the stories of farm workers, roofers, landscapers, and other workers who have no legal protections and no relief from the heat if they want to keep their jobs. Just last August, a South Florida farm worker, Efrain Lopez Garcia died after working during the historic heat wave.  Friends and loved ones say Lopez Garcia complained about feeling sick during a recent shift out in the heat. California and Texas are no different.

Faced with OSHA’s inability to act quickly on new health and safety standards, some states and local jurisdictions are acting on their own. California, which has its own OSHA program, has long had an outdoor heat standard and is about to issue an indoor standard. Oregon and Washington also have heat standards.

Some localities are also thinking that protecting their workers from this preventable and deadly hazard might be a good idea. The Texas cities of Dallas and Austin passed ordinances requiring construction employers to provide water, shade and rest to their employees, and Miami-Dade County, Florida is considering similar legislation.

But no so fast. Last June, Texas Governor Abbott signed the so-call “Death Star” bill that would allow the state to override any local government ordinances — including ordinances in Dallas and Austin that mandate water and rest breaks to protect construction workers from heat related illness and death. The Florida legislature and Governor Ron DeSantis are considering similar legislation. But the Miami-Dade County Commission may have saved him the trouble by succumbing to industry myths and voting to table the proposed protections after initially supporting them.

Several workers died of heat stroke shortly after Abbott’s action. There are undoubtedly many more who didn’t make the news, or were misdiagnosed. Clearly what Texas, Florida and the rest of the nation need are more, not fewer, laws protecting workers from heat.

And the business opposition comes despite mounting evidence that forcing unprotected workers to labor in high heat hurts productivity.

Although Democrats have introduced legislation in Congress to speed up OSHA’s heat standard, no action will be taken with Republicans in control of the House. OSHA is doing the best it can without a standard — using its General Duty Clause — but recent adverse legal decisions and underfunding make OSHA’s work even more difficult.

If Biden is re-elected, there will be progress on a standard, hopefully concluding by the end of his second term. If Trump is elected, workers will swelter and die until the next Democratic President issue a standard.

What can we look forward to next year? If Biden is re-elected, there will be progress on a standard, hopefully concluding by the end of his second term.

If Trump is elected, workers will swelter and die until the next Democratic President issue a standard. Hopefully states and localities will continue to issue laws to protect workers. Maryland and other OSHA state plan states are working on heat standards. And hopefully strong heat protections will be written into more union contracts.

And who knows? Perhaps business interests, faced with dozens — or hundreds — of different local and state requirements will see the benefits of a uniform national standard.

But don’t hold your breath. A lot more workers will die before we see much more progress.

5. Not Learning the Lessons of COVID-19

COVID-19 killed untold thousands of health care workers that would have lived if they had had access to protective N-95 (or better) respirators.

The effectiveness of N-95s to protect healthcare workers against airborne infectious diseases has long been known. But unfortunately, as soon as news about the new disease started making its way across the Pacific, it became apparent that the United States was facing a critical shortage of the respirators.

Hospitals didn’t stockpile respirators, instead depending on “just-on-time delivery” from manufacturers, most of whom were located in China or other foreign countries that were unlikely to keep exporting to the US in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.

The Strategic National Stockpile, which was designed to respond to exactly this type of crisis, had only around 30 million (mostly expired) respirators on hand, while experts estimated they would need several billion to effectively protect frontline healthcare workers in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) responded to the shortage by simply defining the problem away: changing their guidelines to claim that respirators weren’t really needed to protect healthcare workers; COVID was only transmitted by heavy droplets, according to revised CDC guidance, and loose-fitting surgical masks would therefore be perfectly adequate. Voila! Problem solved.

But the COVID virus disagreed. There was already plenty of evidence that COVID was transmitted by aerosolized particles that could travel through long distances and enter around the sides of loose-fitting surgical masks, a transmission mode that had long been recognized from similar viruses. America’s healthcare workers paid the ultimate price.

CDC seems to be in the process of defying history and science by issuing guidance that would make surgical masks great again by reincarnating the zombie theory that COVID is transmitted through droplets.

Now that COVID infections are down and the N-95 shortage is gone, the nation has time to figure out how to better protect our front line health care workers when the inevitable next pandemic arrives. Unfortunately, the powers-that-be at CDC seem to be headed yet again in the exact wrong direction.  CDC seems to be in the process of defying history and science by issuing guidance that would make surgical masks great again by reincarnating the zombie theory that COVID is transmitted through droplets. Meanwhile, states that had stockpiled large numbers of N-95s when the supply problem eased, are discarding tons of expired N-95s and other personal protective equipment.

This raises a couple of life-or-death questions for which healthcare workers need answers: What’s the status of the Strategic National Stockpile? Are there plans to stockpile enough respirators to ensure that healthcare worker are protected when the next pandemic arrives? Are there processes in place to ensure they are rotated so that they aren’t all expired when needed?

To what extent has respirator production been on-shored to the United States?  Do American respirator manufacturers have enough surge capacity to ramp up production when the next pandemic arrives? And beyond protecting healthcare workers, what provisions are being made to provide adequate respiratory protection for the American public so that public demand doesn’t impact supplies needed for health care workers?

And finally, will CDC betray healthcare workers and continue to use weak science to define the problem away?

6. Making Child Labor Great Again

One would never have thought that a “Year in Review” — almost a quarter of the way through the 21st century — would be discussing the growing scourge of child labor. The 19th century, maybe. But 2023? Really?

Yes, really.

Not only that, but some of the discussion around child labor is not focused on how to eliminate it, but how to increase it.

Yes, really.

The stories actually began late last year when the Labor Department filed an injunction in federal court against Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI) for illegally employing 31 children between the ages of 13 and 17 in at least three meatpacking plants where the PSSI is contracted to clean and sanitize. The school children worked on overnight shifts and several suffered chemical burns from the corrosive cleaners they were required to use. Most were Latino and did not speak English.

But it turned out that was only the tip of the iceberg.

In February, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division found that PSSI had employed at least 102 children – from 13 to 17 years of age – in hazardous occupations and had them working overnight shifts at 13 meat processing facilities in eight states. As a result, PSSI has paid $1.5 million in civil money penalties.  The children were working with hazardous chemicals and cleaning meat processing equipment including back saws, brisket saws and head splitters. At least three minors suffered injuries while working for PSSI, one of the country’s largest food safety sanitation service providers.

But there was still a lot of iceberg below that. The combination of a tight labor market, an abundant supply of kids (especially immigrant kids) needing jobs, low penalties and lack of enforcement resources are fueling the rise of child labor. As of last July,

The Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department is currently pursuing more than 700 open child labor cases. At 16 McDonald’s franchise locations in Louisiana and Texas, children as young as 14 operated dangerous equipment and worked long and late hours, the DOL said this week. Two months earlier in a Louisville, Kentucky, McDonald’s, the department found two 10-year-olds working without pay until as late as 2 a.m., preparing and serving meals, working the drive-thru and cash register and cleaning the restaurants, according to a DOL release.

In February, the New York Times’ Hannah Dreier published the first of what was to be a tragic series of articles chronicling the widespread exploitation of immigrant children, here without parents, working for some of the biggest companies in the country.

And the abject failure of government oversight. Children were performing highly dangerous work making products for America’s biggest companies. And although many companies are fighting this public relations disaster by hiring private auditors to root out child labor, those auditors have largely failed to find the children.

To make matters worse, the federal government, in an effort to get the kids off the border as quickly as possible, was sending the children to relatives and around the country, losing track of them as they got jobs with labor traffickers and shady contractors in order to make enough money to stay in the country and possible send funds to relatives back home. The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division is understaffed without the resources to follow up on the massive problem. It would take the Division more than 100 years to visit every worksite under their jurisdiction..

Meanwhile, many states, instead of taking strong action to eliminate the problem, are actually passing laws to make it easier for employers to hire child workers to do highly hazardous jobs.

And the problem shows no sign of abating.  In July, 16-year old Duvan Tomas Perez was killed at the Mar-Jac Poultry plant in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He was  conducting “sanitizing operations,” highly dangerous work cleaning blood and remains out of hazardous machinery that often has not been turned off or locked out. An investigation later found that Perez was originally hired with fake identification, using the identity of a 32-year-old man to obtain the job at the company.

In the company’s defense, who could possibly have figured out that a 16-year old was not actually 32?

One would think that the growing scourge of child labor would result in a strong response from Congress. Instead, the House of Representative’s draft Department of Labor FY 2024 Appropriations bill calls for a   30% cut in the Wage and Hour Division’s budget.

One would think that the growing scourge of child labor and the severe underfunding of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division would result in a strong response from Congress. Instead, the House of Representative’s draft Department of Labor FY 2024 Appropriations bill calls for a 30% cut in the Wage and Hour Division’s budget.

Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) has introduced the Child Labor Protection Act that would increase penalties for violating child labor laws. The current maximum penalty is only $15,138 per child. Schatz’s bill would increase penalties for violating child labor laws to a maximum fine of $132,270 for routine violations and a maximum fine of $601,150 for each violation connected with the death or serious injury of a minor. No Republicans have signed on.

7. East Palestine and Rail Safety

East Palestine.  Remember that? Except to the folks that live there, it now seems a distant memory. Especially with the focus on the other Palestine.

So travel back with me to back to February 3, 2023. 38 rail cars filled with highly toxic vinyl chloride and other hazardous chemicals derail in the small Ohio town of East Palestine.  Fearing a catastrophic explosion (or perhaps just wanting to restore the rail line faster), Norfolk Southern blew holes 5 cars containing vinyl chloride, draining the contents into ditches and creating a uncontrolled mushroom cloud of the burning vinyl chloride. Unfortunately, burning vinyl chloride produces phosgene, hydrogen chloride and dioxins that can persist in soil for decades and have been linked with cancer, developmental problems in children and reproductive issues and infertility in adults.

The town was evacuated, poorly trained and equipped rail workers were assigned to clean up the toxic mess, and politics then flooded the site. Republicans predictably blamed Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for not preventing the incident (even though Trump had cut back on rail safety.)Year in review

Unpredictably, some Republican politicians and MAGA pundits who had never met a rail safety, environmental or workplace safety regulation they didn’t want to abort, were suddenly shocked, SHOCKED!!! that such a thing could happen in America. Especially in rural, small-town Trump-loving America.

The tragedy ushered in a short-lived era of Congressional bipartisanship. A few Republicans, like Ohio Senator J.D. Vance and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, suddenly became big believers in government regulation. Vance joined Ohio’s Democratic Senator, Sherrod Brown to introduce the Railway Safety Act of 2023, a bill that would implement a number of new safeguards addressing the problems of transporting hazardous waste by rail, require 2-person trains, require more rail safety inspections, increase the number of trackside detectors that monitor for overheated wheel bearings, modernize braking systems and increase fines for violations.

The good news is that the disaster helped make politicians and the public aware of the large number of similar incidents that occur every year –issues that rail workers had attempted to highlight during their bitter contract battles the year before:  the railroads’ push increase profits by cutting staff, lengthening trains, reducing maintenance, and weakening safety initiatives.

I’d like to end this section with the good news that the Railway Safety Act of 2023 sailed through Congress and was signed by President Biden. But almost a year later, it still languishes in the Senate under a barrage of rail industry opposition and filibuster threats. A weaker bi-partisan bill was introduced in the House of Representatives — and quickly forgotten.

Meanwhile, back in East Palestine, many residents who evacuated are still scared to come back and are wary of lingering health hazards. Others have suffered financial losses that continue to resonate.  Norfolk Southern provided relocation aid for some residents, but announced Dec. 5 it would end payments for residents who haven’t returned by Feb. 9 An EPA study of long-term health effects will take three years.

And the trains keep rolling — and derailing. According to the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, “There have been more than 60 high-profile derailments since East Palestine, including multiple in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Montana. Through it all, freight rail companies have maintained their fundamental disregard for public safety. Safety is just a buzzword to the railroads.”

8. Good Journalism

I always like to take some time at the end of the year to recognize the amazing journalists who have written enlightening investigative pieces that inform Americans about the ongoing tragedies in American workplaces.  I’m sure I’ve missed a few (add them in the comments below), but here are my highlights for 2023.

Hannah Dreier of the New York Times wins the Confined Space Journalist of the Year Award with several long, devastating investigative pieces about the growing scourge of child labor in this country. Here first is here, another here, the most recent on children working as roofers and failure of company-hired auditors to identify any problems.

ProPublica’s Maryam Jameel and Melissa Sanchez published a hard-hitting piece on the deaths of Wisconsin dairy workers with several follow-ups. Matti Gelman of the Kansas City star tells that tragic story of the death of Jose Sanchez, an asbestos worker who fell down an elevator shaft that was “super dark” because the ceiling lights had been removed — after workers had warned that the workplace was unsafe. Ann Ryman at ABC-15 in Phoenix, Arizona shows how Arizona OSHA is inappropriately and indiscriminately providing discounts to small businesses even when workers were killed as a result of clear failure of the companies to comply with OSHA standard. Former OSHA head David Michaels, along with Adam Dean and Jamie K. McCallum in the American Prospect describe a study conducted showing how “unions in health care act as a much-needed counterweight to poor management that allows workplace hazards to exist unabated. They are critical to building safer and more accountable workplaces.”

Meanwhile, Emily Alpert Reyes and Cindy Carcamo describe in the Los Angeles Times how young workers — mostly Latino immigrants — who cut and polish countertops made of engineered stone are needlessly dying of silicosis, “an incurable and suffocating disease that has devastated dozens of workers across the state and killed men who have barely reached middle age.”  This story follows a Public Health Watch story from December 2022 by  Jim Morris and Leslie Berestein Rojas about the deadly hazards facing these workers.

Josh Eidelson and Brendan Case write for Bloomberg about “Why Dollar General Might Just Be the Worst Retail Job in America.”  describing the company’s long history of endangering workers and ignoring OSHA citations. I wrote here about Dollar General’s competitor Dollar Tree which had similar issues, but recently reached a corporate-wide settlement with OSHA. John Oliver also covered the Dollar General story as only John Oliver can. Jenny Strasburg writing in the Wall St Journal tells the tragic and heartbreaking story of two brothers, Max and Ben Morissy, who were killed last year in an explosion of a BP refinery in Oregon, Ohio, and how they warned of the hazards that eventually killed them. Ariel Wittenberg writes in Politico about how the Post Office has neglected its own program to protect postal workers from deadly heat-related illness, resulting in illnesses and deaths among the worker who deliver our mail.

Moving on, Reuters journalist Marisa Taylor wrote a long, devastating piece about workers injured and killed in Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and how he thinks he’s better than OSHA regulations.  Ronan Farrow described in the New Yorker Elon’s quirks and the government’s overdependence on his technologies as well as his treatment of workers.  Helen Ouyang in the New York Times describes the workplace violence that emergency room workers face every day.

And, of course, I can’t fail to mention the dwindling number of labor journalists that persist — despite retirement, lack of funding and lack of interest — to document working conditions of those who build and service the United States. I  want to give a shout-out to some of my favorite labor/OSH/environment reporters:  Labor reporter Steve Greenhouse who continues continues to report extensively on the re-enlivened labor movement even (or especially) after his alleged retirement from the New York Times. Terri GersteinSteve Franklin, Noem Sheiber at the New York Times, Lauren Kaori Gurley at the Washington Post and he always informative Mike Elk continues to labor away at Payday Report. Honorable mention of those who labor for labor at various news bureaus: Bloomberg labor/OSHA team: Josh EidelsonBruce Rolfson, Rebecca Rainey, Ian Kulgren and the folks at Labor NotesIn These Times and Portside Labor, and OnLabor. (Am I missing some of you? Of course! Castigate me in the comments below…)

9. Massachusetts Protects Public Employees

This is actually from 2022, but I didn’t write a Year in Review for 2022, so…

In August 2022,  OSHA announced that more than more than 430,000 state, county and municipal employees in Massachusetts would finally gain the legal right to a safe workplace.  For the last 50 years, while private sector employees have enjoyed OSHA coverage, public employees were exempted from coverage under the law except in the 27 states that have state plans or public employee-only state plans.

When the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHAct) was passed in 1970, public employees were exempted from coverage, with two exceptions. State plan states that covered their private sector employees are also required to cover their public sector employees. 21 states run their own state plans.

States covered by federal OSHA were also given the opportunity to cover only their public employees and OSHA would fund up to 50% of those programs. Unfortunately, over the past 50 years, only 6 of the 29 states that don’t already have state plans — Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Maine — and now Massachusetts —  have chosen to adopt laws providing public employees with a safe workplace.

Pennsylvania is also working on a bill. (Good news. But Pennsylvania has been working on legislation to provide protection for public employees since the 1980s.)

Public employees work jobs as dangerous or more dangerous than private sector workers. Public employees who go down into trenches, work on the roads and highways, in prisons, parks, utilities, wastewater treatment plants, public works, sanitation, hospitals and mental health institutions. They work as social workers, housing inspectors, firefighters and police.

But they are out of luck if they work in one of the states with no OSHA coverage. State government health care and social service workers were almost 9 times more likely to be injured by an assault than private sector health care workers.

But somehow, in 21st century America, public employees are still considered public servants, without the basic right to come home safe and alive at the end of the workday.

Kudos to Massachusetts.

10. Unions Advance

Ultimately, the best guarantee of a safe workplace is a strong, educated union that can promote safe workplaces and protect workers from retaliation.

2023 was a pretty good year for the labor movement. More than 525,000 workers went on strike for better wages and benefits, and improved safety conditions in 2023 — one of the biggest strike years since 1990.  Workers’ power was energized by the low unemployment rate, strong union leadership and creative tactics  and a rising concerns about safety due to the impact of COVID-19. Strikes by auto workers, screen writers, actors and nurses, as well as a threatened strike by UPS workers resulted in unprecedented gains for workers over the past year. Unionization was led by women and people of color who are unionizing at higher rates than white men and now comprise nearly two thirds of union-represented workers. And over two-thirds of Americans say they support unions.

Strikes by auto workers, screen writers, actors and nurses, as well as a threatened strike by UPS workers resulted in unprecedented gains for workers over the past year.

This was all great news for organized workers, but what about organizing new workers?  The UAW wants to use the momentum created by its successful strike to organize workers at Tesla, Toyota and other non-union auto plants, mainly in the South, and mainly owned by foreign automakers.

Workers at  Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, Apple, Chipotle and REI who have voted to unionize over the past couple of years are struggling to get first contracts.  If those contracts include big increases in wages and benefits, they’ll set an example for numerous organizing efforts across the country.

But the labor movement, despite the successes of the past year,  is still struggling to expand. The good news is that 200,000 more workers belonged to unions in 2022 than in 2021. But at the same time, the share of workers represented by a union declined from 11.6% to 11.3%, mainly due to growth in the overall economy, especially in non-union sectors.

Also, our labor laws are broken. According to the Economic Policy Institute,

Between October 2021 and September 2022, the National Labor Relations Board saw a 53% increase in union election petitions, the highest single-year increase since fiscal year 2016. Evidence suggests that in 2022 more than 60 million workers wanted to join a union, but couldn’t. The fact that tens of millions of workers want to join a union and can’t is a glaring testament to how broken U.S. labor law is. Protecting the Right to Organize

What we need is for Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act which will remove many of the obstacles to workers who want to organize.

11. Confined Space 20th Anniversary

And finally.

Unremarked and un-remembered (even by me), March 29, 2023, marked the 20th anniversary of the launching of Confined Space. I haven’t actually written Confined Space for 20 years. I took 12 years off during periods when I had political jobs in the House of Representatives and at OSHA.

Often, those were panful times. I can’t even count the number of instances when I’d slap my forehead at something outrageous and wonder, “Where is my blog when I need it?”

(All of that will have to wait for my memoirs.)

My very first post (at my previous website) was published at 1:22 am (a typical posting time back then when I had more energy and needed less sleep). It discussed a decision by the Tualatin Valley Water District in Beaverton, Oregon, not to not buy pipes from a McWane Corp subsidiary which had recently been the subject of a devastating series of New York Times article about McWane’s neglect of worker safety and evidence that the company “regularly put profits before worker safety.

I also had a short piece about the cruelty and futility of the recently launched war in Iraq.

My first Weekly Toll (then biweekly) was published June 15, 2003, seeking to put names and faces on the endless statistics of workers dying every day on the job.

Since that time I’ve published over 3,600 posts. I used to be a lot more prolific, publishing almost 700 posts a year. Now I’m lucky to push out a couple of hundred in a year.

The day after my first post I tried to describe “Who I am I? Why I am I here?” where are explained that in addition to providing life-saving information to workers, I was trying to show people how politics — how you vote — largely determines the likelihood of workers coming home alive and healthy at the end of every work shift.

But I more eloquently described the purpose of Confined Space in closing of the first version in 2007 before I headed off to my new job in the House of Representatives.

There are still far too many health and safety professionals that don’t understand that to a very great extent, who lives and who dies in the workplace is determined by politics – both power relationships in the workplace, and traditional politics that determines who controls our government. What that means is that organizing unions and electing politicians who will fight against unlimited corporate control over our regulatory agencies, our workplaces and the environment are of vital importance to protecting the health and safety of American workers.

Interestingly,  I have often been accused of injecting politics into workplace safety. An I’ve been accused of being overly partisan by unfairly criticizing Republicans.

And to those indictments, I plead not guilty. I did not create OSHA politics. When it comes to workplace safety and labor issues, the politics already overflow (as we’ve seen above), no thanks to me. And it’s getting worse.

To the partisanship charge: show me where the Republican party (or the Chamber of Commerce) has supported workers’ right to organize, higher OSHA budgets, more worker voice in ensuring safe workplaces, a single new OSHA standard — and you’ll have my apology.

On the other hand, I haven’t pulled any punches when I perceive failures in a Democratic administration.

I didn’t invent politics; I’m just fighting back. Because if efforts by politicians to weaken unions, cut OSHA’s budget and weaken worker protections aren’t confronted, more workers will get injured, sick and killed.

I didn’t invent politics; I’m just fighting back. Because if efforts by politicians to weaken unions, cut OSHA’s budget and weaken worker protections aren’t confronted, more workers will get injured, sick and killed.

I wish occupational safety wasn’t so political — that both political parties, labor and industry, would understand the simple truth that workers have a right to come home alive and healthy at the end of the day, that strong unions are the best guarantor of workplace safety, and that government — especially OSHA — has a crucial role in ensuring that employers provide a safe workplace.

I wish OSHA was ten times as large and could issue standards in only a year, instead of a decade or two. And I wish that unions represented 60% of American workers instead of 10%.

Unfortunately, the world is not that way. And that’s why I write.

And that’s why we fight.

P.S. When I write the “2024 Year in Review” a year from now, I’d rather not have to include a section titled “The Election Of Donald Trump.”

You know what to do.


4 thoughts on “The 2023 Confined Space Year In Review”
  1. Jordan, thanks for your work on all of this. You write “Congressionally set OSHA penalties still remain very low compared with agencies like EPA..” Can you provide some comparison data or provide a link?
    I share many of your thoughts on the politics of OHS. The political extremism is not as great in Australia as in the US, but the ideological divide is the same.
    And the political lethargy of our OHS profession is the same, continuing to rely on the dwindling trade union movement for progress and change. Australia’s OHS profession has always compared itself to white-collar professions for reasons of prestige, misplaced legitimacy and insecurity. A more effective comparison may be to the blue-collar trades, an economic sector that directly faces the work-related hazards the profession intends to prevent.
    Congrats on 20 years, my SafetyAtWorkBlog is close behind on 16 this year. Keep on fighting.

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