For the sixth year in a row, we present “The Year in U.S. Occupational Health & Safety,” our attempt to document the year’s highs and lows as well as the challenges ahead.
Like previous editions, the 2017 yearbook highlights policies, appointments and activities at the federal, state and local levels; outstanding news reporting on workers’ rights, safety and health; and the latest research from public health agencies and worker groups on the ground. Of course, you can’t ignore the giant elephant (no pun intended) in the room in 2017 — a new president and a Republican-controlled Congress that seem intent on rolling back worker protections and making it harder to access the very information that’s used to prevent future injuries and illnesses in the workplace.
To give you a better sense of our 2017 yearbook, released appropriately on Labor Day, below is a passage from its “Introduction and Overview”:
Protecting worker health and safety is always a challenge, no matter the administration in charge. OSHA is and has always been the little agency that could — there is perhaps no other federal agency whose mission is more stacked against the odds. And yet OSHA has made huge gains in its more than four-decade history.
Today, after eight years of steady and hard-fought progress, advocates are watching in dismay as the Trump administration’s anti-regulatory agenda goes to work inside OSHA. Just a couple of examples from the first eight months: elimination of the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which required those bidding for federal contracts to disclose prior labor violations; proposed elimination of OSHA’s new beryllium exposure standards for the maritime and construction industries; and moves to roll back an Obama-era rule expanding overtime eligibility to millions more workers.
Beyond the regulatory rollbacks, OSHA under Trump has quietly made itself less transparent, changing its everyday practices to make it harder for advocates to access worker safety data and easier for negligent employers to break the law with little public notice. For instance, in the first four months of the Trump administration, OSHA issued just two enforcement-related news releases, even though the agency had issued more than 200 citations exceeding $40,000. The shift was a big deal, as the resource-strapped agency has typically used public notices as a low-cost, but potentially persuasive, enforcement tool.
Most recently in late August, worker safety advocates noticed and quickly spread word about changes on OSHA’s website, where a link to “Workplace Fatalities” had disappeared from the agency’s home page. The fatality list had also been scaled back to only include workplace deaths in which a citation was issued. Both changes make it more burdensome to access health and safety data, which in turn makes it harder to protect workers and hold employers accountable. On top of all that, the Trump administration is proposing elimination of the Chemical Safety Board and big funding cuts to the Department of Labor and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
At the end of the day, it’s worrisome, but oddly familiar territory for safeguarding workers’ rights, safety, and health.
We’ll be providing brief snapshots of the 2017 yearbook here at The Pump Handle every day this week. We hope you’ll write to us in the comments section detailing your own experiences from the past year and letting us know what we might have missed. We also hope you’ll help share the 2017 yearbook far and wide — not only is the yearbook a call to action, it’s a source of inspiration and motivation. Something we could all use this Labor Day.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years. Follow me on Twitter — @kkrisberg.