Worker safety rules are quietly going away

As of March 14, the Labor Department has yet to publicly release any fines against companies committing workplace safety violations.

This silence contrasts with the rush of fines from past administrations. Under President Obama, the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released about 460 notices annually about fines.

Why it matters: What OSHA does, at its best, is advocate on behalf of workers by penalizing workplace safety offenders and detail what exactly employers did wrong.

Without the list being made public, workers have no way of finding out which employers are frequent workplace safety violators.

No more public shaming

OSHA’s list was used to raise awareness of workplace safety violations and force employers to improve their conditions through public shaming.

This is a popular technique most frequently used by journalists. The Village Voice was known for annually publicizing the 10 Worst Landlords of New York City, a list that would prompt landlords to do anything to get off of it for the next year.

Now, companies don’t have to worry so much about keeping records. Under the Obama administration, OSHA required companies to electronically submit records of workplace accidents, so that OSHA could list them publicly on its website. OSHA under president Donald Trump, in contrast, is “not accepting electronic submissions at this time.”

OSHA rules apply to office workers and factory workers


An important bit of context: While OSHA is frequently considered a key protection for blue-collar factory workers, it also protects white-collar workers, who may become injured or ill from “electrical dangers, indoor air problems, poor housekeeping, excessive noise, inaccessible fire extinguishers, and entrances and exits which may be blocked,” according to an OSHA document.

Everything from bad air quality to insufficient equipment could lead to white-collar workers seeking disability payments for respiratory illnesses, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other physical maladies. Workers’ compensation to pay for injuries and illnesses in the workplace covered nearly 133 million Americans as of the most recent tally, according to the National Association of Social Insurance.

Falls, slips and trips — which could happen in any office — account for around 17% of all workplace compensation claims, according to the National Association of Social Insurance.

The organization noted in its most recent report, in fact, that white-collar workers are the ones most likely to be covered for long-term disability insurance: “59% of workers in management and professional-related occupations were covered by long-term disability plans as of 2014, compared to 34% of workers in sales and office occupations, and 10% of workers in service occupations.”

That said, OSHA’s strongest work comes in preventing fatalities on the job, which are far more likely to happen in factories.

‘Senseless tragedy’

As an example, in 2016, OSHA fined Alabama-based Ajin USA $2.5 million after a 20-year-old female factory worker was fatally impaled by a malfunctioning robot.

In its report, OSHA called the incident a “senseless tragedy” that was entirely preventable with better safety guidelines. Putting Ajin USA on its Severe Violators Enforcement Program, OSHA could inspect Ajin USA factories more frequently.

Without that list being publicly available, companies that violate safety rules are better able to avoid accountability.

Federal contracts may go to workplace safety violators

In fact, companies that don’t respect workplace safety won’t even suffer financially: they are now more likely to get federal contracts than they were just three months ago.

That’s because in early March, the Senate voted to repeal the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces regulation, which the Obama administration put in place. The law required employers bidding on federal contracts to disclose alleged workplace safety violations. It was supposed to make it harder for the worst violators to get government funding by holding them more accountable.

With that law repealed, companies with safety violations can more easily win federal contracts. Since 1 in 5 American workers is employed by a federal contractor, this rule could have far-reaching consequences.

Less regulation means more concerns for workers’ health

OSHA is now also delaying a rule that would decrease workers’ exposure to beryllium, a mineral linked to a fatal lung disease. Due to the White House’s regulatory freeze memorandum, the rule that was supposed to go into effect this month will now go into effect on May 20.

In January, OSHA estimated that the rule would impact 62,000 workers and save 94 lives annually, so longer delays or potential revisions could further jeopardize workers’ health.