Occupational Health News Roundup

At the American Prospect, Justin Miller interviews Obama-era Labor Department officials on the future of worker protections under President Trump. Miller takes a behind-the-scenes peek at what it took to pass some of the Obama administration’s key labor rules, discusses the nomination of Andy Puzder to become the nation’s next labor secretary, and addresses rumors that the new administration might be gunning to abolish some Labor Department divisions entirely. Miller writes:

Not surprisingly, Obama’s top labor alums express pride in the many worker protections they were able to put in place over the past several years. In interviews, however, a number of them expressed deep concern that many of them could be undone by the Trump Administration’s and congressional Republicans’ blitzkrieg against federal regulations and workers’ interests.

For starters, there’s the federal hiring freeze the new president has imposed, and Trump’s executive order directing that for every new rule, federal agencies must identify two rules to eliminate.

“A hiring freeze is a pretty ham-handed way to decide which [government] functions should exist,” Obama’s Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu, who is now a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, told the Prospect in an interview. “There’s an irony here in that these are folks that want to run government like a business, and you would never run business with a hiring freeze. It’s a nice sound bite, but it doesn’t actually do anything.”

In fact, it could impede the department’s ability to carry out its investigatory duties. Right now—before the freeze has taken its toll—a couple thousand Labor Department investigators are charged with enforcing the laws on wages, pensions and workplace safety on behalf of more than 100 million workers. At the current level of staffing, Lu says, the frequency with which an OSHA investigator is likely to show up at your workplace is probably once every 100 years. “It compromises the safety of workers, compromises workers getting wages,” Lu says. “That’s what I’m concerned about.”

Read the entire story at the American Prospect.

In other news:

Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting: Jennifer Gollan reports on a draft executive order the center obtained showing that the Trump administration may be planning to allow religious organizations that receive federal funds to hire and fire workers based on their beliefs. If the draft became law, it would also allow employers to deny health care benefits for birth control. Gollan writes: “Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the order uses religious freedom as a guise to discriminate. ‘It’s shocking in scope,’ she said. ‘It uses religion as an excuse to discriminate against almost anyone. It targets LGBT people and women, but those of minority faiths and nontheists and almost anyone else will be affected.’”

Devil in the Dust blog (a project of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center): Evan Smith writes that President Trump’s Supreme court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, has ruled in two black lung benefits cases as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. In both cases, he affirmed the benefits awarded to sickened coal miners. The first case involved a Utah coal miner who developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease after more than two decades as a miner, while the second involved a miner who had worked underground for 44 years and had a disputed history of smoking. On what the two cases say about Gorsuch, Smith writes: “More broadly, they demonstrate four things about Judge Gorsuch: (1) a willingness to defer to agency adjudicators on factual disputes, (2) a practical approach to procedural issues, (3) a reticence to rule on issues where it can be avoided, and (4) an acceptance of agency rulemakers’ power to overturn prior judicial interpretations of regulations by rewriting those regulations.”

New Republic: Emmett Rensin and Lucy Schiller report that Iowa Republicans are moving to gut the state’s labor unions. The story involves a deal known as Chapter 20, which was worked out in the aftermath of a teachers strike in the early 1970s. The Chapter 20 deal meant that Iowa public workers lost the right to strike, but won recognition of their union and the right to collectively bargain, with employers required to negotiate on issues such as wages, insurance, overtime, vacation, health and safety. Now Iowa Republicans have introduced a bill that would prohibit unionized workers from negotiating on health insurance and supplemental pay. Rensin and Schiller write: “While unions and their allies have mobilized to resist these changes, 70 years as a right-to-work state have weakened their ability to organize and undercut their capacity to keep political allies in power. Removing the sole remaining power of Iowa public unions—their capacity to negotiate over vital quality of life issues—is liable to destroy them entirely. That is exactly what Iowa’s government is after.”

George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health Blog: Based on “An Overview of Occupational Risks from Climate Change,” which was published last year in the journal Current Environmental Health Reports, GW debuted a new graphic that explains how climate change will affect indoor and outdoor workers. The graphic makes the connection between climate change and a range of workplace hazards, such as heat exposure, ozone and violence. According to the blog: “The threat to occupational health in the U.S. has far-reaching implications for our economy, too. A 2010 study found that ‘sub-optimal environmental conditions do more than simply make workers uncomfortable’—they impact work intensity and duration, which in turn affects productivity. The result? Climate change has the potential to ‘influence all economic sectors, even those previously thought to be insensitive to climate.’”

The New York Times: Claire Cain Miller argues that giving workers more control over their schedules can help narrow the gender gap, as women typically bear the brunt of caregiving responsibilities in their personal lives. To this point, Miller highlights a new job search company called Werk, which negotiates scheduling flexibility with employers before posting jobs. She writes: “For now, Werk is a limited experiment. Most of the employers are small companies, and it is aimed at an elite group of women — highly educated and on a leadership track. But it could provide lessons for how to improve work and make it more equal for a broader group.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years.