When President Donald Trump came into office pledging to cut regulations “massively,” he made a point of exempting regulations that protected workers’ health.
But almost two years in, the Trump administration has done the opposite, rolling back worker safety protections affecting underground mine safety inspections, offshore oil rigs and line speeds in meat processing plants, among others.
Trump's deregulatory moves on worker safety are at odds with his public stance as a champion of working class Americans, but consistent with his naming two management-side attorneys bent on rolling back economic protections for workers to the National Labor Relations Board, which regulates labor unions, and with his nominations of two reliably pro-management jurists to a now-Republican-majority Supreme Court that recently dealt a heavy financial blow to public-employee unions.
One of those Supreme Court nominees, Brett Kavanaugh, will on Tuesday begin Senate confirmation hearings, where Judiciary Committee Democrats will almost certainly quiz him about dissenting opinions in which he denied undocumented workers had the right to bargain collectively and that San Diego's Sea World bore responsibility for a deadly attack on one of its employees by a killer whale.
“When you look at core worker protections and union rights, the administration and the president have been totally anti-worker,” said Peg Seminario, director of occupational safety and health for the AFL-CIO.
To Trump, rules that protect workers — even rules that protect worker safety — are often a hindrance to boosting employment, especially in traditional industries like manufacturing and coal mining.
Deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters said in a written statement that the administration “is committed to protecting health and safety on the job while respecting the right of Americans to make their own decisions. Too often in the past, agencies issued regulations that constricted the freedom of American workers and small business owners to work in the best way.”
At an August campaign rally in Charleston, W.Va., the president said, “We are back. The coal industry is back.” Whether coal mining jobs are on the rebound is a matter of some dispute. But there’s no question that the Trump administration has taken steps to roll back mining safety regulations.
Trump’s mine safety chief, David Zatezalo, is a former coal executive who as recently as 2011 was cited by the agency he now leads for a pattern of safety violations. When Zatezalo was president and CEO at Rhino Resources, a West Virginia miner was killed when a portion of a rock wall collapsed. The accident occurred after Rhino already had been cited for one worker safety violation, and before it received a second.
Zatzelo, at his confirmation hearing, told senators that “the management of that particular group and that particular site was not doing what they should have been doing.”
Under the Obama administration, inspections had to occur before workers began their shifts — to scale away, for instance, loose pieces of rock that might fall on them. But in April, the Zatezalo-led Mine Safety and Health Administration said it would allow inspections to begin while miners were already at work. The change was first proposed two months before Zatezalo was confirmed.
“These additional amendments provide mine operators additional flexibility in managing their safety and health programs and reduces regulatory burdens without reducing the protections afforded miners,” MSHA wrote in the final rule.
In a written statement, a DOL spokeswoman said miners still will be notified of hazards that aren’t corrected promptly (a protection that was in the Obama rule). "MSHA believes that the additional required communication and notification," she said, "will encourage prompt corrective action and help prevent fatalities and other accidents.”
At the Interior Department, administration officials are seeking to roll back regulations on offshore oil rigs — former President Barack Obama’s response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout that killed 11 workers and flooded the Gulf of Mexico with millions of barrels of oil. A proposed rule would rescind the requirement that only government-approved third parties may inspect blowout preventers that seal a well in the event of a pressure surge.
The revisions would also allow rig operators to test equipment less frequently, to prevent “wear and tear.” All told, the changes would save industry more than $900 million over 10 years.
But environmental advocates and southern lawmakers of both parties worry the changes could lead to another deadly spill.
“History itself has demonstrated that the industry can’t be trusted to self-regulate,” said Shanna Devine, a worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. “That resulted in the same regulation the Trump administration is now trying to roll back.”
At the Agriculture Department, officials are weighing whether to raise line speeds at meat-packing plants, a change that worker advocates say would increase repetitive motion injuries and accidents. According to government data, the injury rates in meatpacking are already higher than in U.S. industries as a whole.
USDA in February proposed lifting line speed requirements in hog processing plants — part of an effort to streamline food safety inspections at the plants, which currently may process no more than 1,100 hogs per hour. Agriculture department officials wrote in the proposal that they seek to remove “unnecessary regulatory obstacles” and cut food safety inspection staff, saving taxpayers $8.7 million. The change would also would free up line inspectors to inspect other areas of the plant, they wrote.
But “common sense would tell you [that] you cannot increase line speeds at a fast, repetitive motion and not expect injuries to go up,” said Mark Lauritsen, director of meat packing and food processing for the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Increased speeds could lead to shoulder, neck, back and wrist injuries, Lauritsen said. In addition, increased line speeds could cause workers to take shortcuts in an environment that’s already dangerous.
“It’s hot, it’s humid, it’s slick, it’s bloody,” he said.
Dan Kovich, director of science and technology for the National Pork Producers Council, the industry’s chief advocacy group, says the proposal will increase line speeds in a way that will be invisible to the naked eye. He noted that the program to raise line speeds began as a pilot program under former President Bill Clinton.
As for the effect on workers, “that’s really outside our area of expertise,” Kovich said.
The Trump administration denied a similar poultry industry petition for unlimited line speed increases this year, but said it would consider applications to raise line speeds from 140 to 175 birds per minute at certain plants.
Poultry workers already face higher injury rates than manufacturing workers overall, worker advocates note. At a plant in Maryland in 2014, government researchers found that more than one-third of workers suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome. Many more don’t report dangerous conditions due to fear of retaliation, according to the Government Accountability Office, making it hard for the government to accurately assess the scope of the problem.
Officials at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said they worked with the worker safety arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in developing the updated inspection proposals. In addition, they said, plants seeking increases must agree to monitor injuries.
But USDA food safety officials acknowledge that safety wasn’t a top priority. “We don’t regulate worker safety,” acting administrator Paul Kiecker said. “What we regulate at FSIS is the food safety. That’s not to say we are not interested in employee safety. We are definitely interested in that.”
The National Chicken Council, the main advocacy group for the poultry industry, noted that injury rates among workers have fallen over the past two decades.
At the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Trump officials are seeking to loosen reporting requirements for injury and illness data from large companies. A rule proposed in July in would relieve companies with 250 workers or more from a previous obligation to submit detailed injury and illness data, which OSHA had intended to publish online.
“Companies will have an easier time hiding injuries and illnesses,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former Obama OSHA official and director of worker safety and health for the National Employment Law Project. “This is on top of the fact that OSHA’s presence in the workplace is declining.”
A NELP study released in June found that OSHA enforcement fell from 2017 to 2018, after Trump took office.
Under the proposal, companies still must submit summaries of the data to OSHA for review. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says the proposal should go further, arguing that proprietary information — such as hours and number of workers — could be of value to competitors.
“It leaves a big, glaring weakness exposed,” said Marc Freedman, the Chamber’s vice president of employment policy.
The Labor Department spokeswoman said the proposal “would protect both the safety and the privacy of America’s workers.”
“Injury and illness data must still be reported and posted in individual establishments and will continue to be used for enforcement purposes,” she said in a written statement. “The proposed rule would protect workers’ personally identifiable information and sensitive medical information from Freedom of Information Act inquiries. The proposal would not change the existing requirements for the electronic submission of summaries of work-related injuries and illnesses each year.”
Since Trump took office, OSHA also scrubbed a running list of worker deaths from its home page.
A notable exception to the administration’s resistance to worker-safety regulation was its decision to defend in court an Obama-era rule regulating crystalline silica — a mineral dust long known to cause deadly lung ailments. After some initial delays, the rule took effect for most employers in June.
That action was more in tune with Trump's earlier rhetoric. "We need regulations for safety and environment and things,” President-elect Trump assured workers at an Indianapolis air-conditioner plant in December 2016. “We want to protect our workers,” President Trump repeated one year later in a speech touting the cancellation or delay of 1,500 regulatory actions.
At EPA, Trump officials are working on new rules to limit asbestos exposure as part of a congressionally mandated update to the Toxic Substances Control Act in 2016. On its face, it would seem to be strengthening safety.
But advocates worry that the rules, intended by Congress to limit asbestos, could open the door to new products containing the toxin.
EPA’s significant new use rule, proposed in June, lists 14 uses of asbestos that would trigger scrutiny by EPA. All were used at one time but have been halted by industry voluntarily, said Betsy Southerland, former director of the EPA’s science and technology office.
But the rule doesn’t require every new use of asbestos to be approved by the EPA, though advocates believe Congress gave the agency authority to do so. That means a company conceivably could develop at new use for asbestos and not have to notify the agency, said Southerland, who resigned in 2017.
“You never know what industry is going to come up with,” Southerland said. “They could want to use it to create new chemicals in the future.”
In addition, the EPA’s proposal for evaluating asbestos risks doesn’t consider so-called legacy hazards — for example, particles of asbestos insulation or asbestos tiles that could be inhaled by workers when removed. That means workers could be more highly exposed than the general public if and when the EPA approves new uses.
“What the Trump EPA has done is essentially cooked the books to undervalue the risks posed by asbestos,” said Scott Faber, a top lobbyist for the Environmental Working Group, which has opposed a variety of Trump policies. “You don’t need to be a toxicologist to understand that you can’t determine whether a chemical is safe or not if you don’t understand the whole picture.”
EPA spokeswoman Molly Block noted that the proposal was subject to multiple rounds of public comments.
“Based on that input, the agency is confident that the uses identified in the SNUR constitute the universe of uses that could come back onto the market if someone wanted to reintroduce the use,” Block said in a statement. “Thus the proposed [significant new use rule] is a good complement to the risk evaluation.”
Advocates suspect industry influence may have played a role. Nancy Beck, a deputy assistant administrator the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, previously served as the senior director for regulatory science policy for the American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing the chemical industry. Block noted that Beck, who declined to be interviewed, worked in the EPA under President George W. Bush and in the White House Office of Management and Budget under Bush and Obama.
“The amount of time and energy they put into rolling back this vital worker health and safety protections could have easily been put into implementing existing protections and enacting new rules that are needed,” said Devine, the Public Citizen advocate. “This Labor Day, it’s clear where the administration’s interests lie.”