Labor Day assessment of federal efforts to improve (or impede) worker safety protections

As Liz Borkowski noted yesterday, we are following up on a tradition that we started last year to mark Labor Day.  We released our second annual review of U.S. occupational health and safety for Labor Day 2013.

Liz explained in her post our objectives in preparing the report.  She also highlighted its first section which profiles some of the best research from the year published in both peer-reviewed journals and by non-profit organizations.  Here’s a peek at section two of the report on activities at the federal level:

  • Sequestration and other budget cuts have affected our worker protection agencies in numerous ways.  OSHA projected it would conduct 1,200 fewer inspections.  MSHA was forced to cut nearly all of its funding to the 49 State agencies that receive small grants to conduct safety training for mine workers.  And NIOSH had to cease funding the 40 State programs that conduct lead-poisoning surveillance.
  • Delays continued in proposing and adopting new regulations to protect workers by our worker protection agencies.   Much of the “credit” for the inaction falls on the desks at the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).  The stalled rules include ones to protect mine workers from being crushed from mobile equipment, and to reduce electrocutions for workers employed in electric power transmission.  Finally, after a 906 day delay, OSHA was permitted by OIRA to publish a proposed rule to protect workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica.
  • Conservative Members of Congress continued their attack on regulations, including those designed to protect the environment and public health.  Bills, such as “Regulation from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act,” passed the House of Representatives along a party-line vote.  Under the law, Congress would be required to approve every major regulation developed by an agency.  If they failed to do so—-intentionally or not—-the regulation would be null and void.

Our report also highlights specific activities at the key worker protection agencies.  At OSHA, for example, the agency:

  • Signed an accord with Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railway to resolve 36 whistleblower complaints, and revise personnel policies that discourage and discriminate against workers who get injured or complain about safety problems; and
  • Continued its Severe Violators Enforcement Program which targets extremely recalcitrant employers for special attention.  OSHA’s list now includes 315 employers.

At MSHA, for example, the agency:

  • Continued to respond to recommendations made following the April 2010 disaster at the Upper Big Branch coal mine; and
  • Issued a new regulation identifying the criteria for a mine operator to be recognized officially as a repeat violator.  In the agency’s 30 year history, the provision of the law allowing a “pattern of violation” designation had not been used against any mine operator.

At NIOSH, for example, the agency:

  • Announced a new office to study and capitalize on workers’ compensation data, for prevention purposes; and
  • Eliminated funding, through the President’s FY 2014 budget request, for NIOSH’s Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing program.

At the Chemical Safety Board, the agency:

  • Released several investigation reports, including those on a 2011 fire at a Hawaii fireworks disposal operation, and a 2011 explosion at Carbide Industries in Louisville, Kentucky;
  • Replied to an Inspector General’s report criticizing the agency’s backlog of open investigations; and
  • Responded to the April 2013 fire and explosion at West Fertilizer in West, Texas.

Finally, this section of the report, gave us an opportunity to give credit to a number of journalists.  These professionals  investigated and offered the public insightful perspectives on the challenges facing working people.  There reporting covered topics such as temp workers, wage-theft, young workers, workplace toxins, and deaths on the job.   The reporters’ stories we profile in the report, write for big name outlets like the Washington Post and National Public Radio, as well as smaller publications such as The Oregonian and the Raleigh News-Observer.