Let’s fight for working people on Workers’ Memorial Day
April 28 is Workers’ Memorial Day, an international remembrance day set aside to “mourn for the dead, and fight like hell for the living,” in the words of the immortal labor organizer Mother Jones.
In 2016, nearly 5,200 workers were killed on the job in the United States—14 workers every day—the highest number of workplace deaths in years. But that is only a part of the deadly toll: each year, more than 50,000 workers die from work-related disease. With this awful trend, any rational government would be proposing a significant increase in the budgets of our worker protection agencies and a rapid expansion of regulatory protections for workers.
Unless you’re just waking up from a 15-month nap, you know that workers’ rights—and especially worker safety and health—are under attack by the Trump administration like never before. And not only are workers under attack in their workplaces, but thanks to actions by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Interior Department, the Department of Agriculture and others, they’re also under attack where they live, where they eat, and where they vacation.
But these attacks didn’t originate in the fevered dreams of Donald Trump. What we’re seeing is the attempted wholesale implementation of the long-standing wish list of the conservative anti-worker Republicans, the Chamber of Commerce, and its anti-worker corporate allies.
And the attacks are not just aimed at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but at a variety of other agencies— and even the scientific process underlying the ability of government agencies to legally protect workers from getting injured, killed, or sickened in the workplace.
It would take a long time to detail every attack on worker safety and the safety of the communities they live in, but I’ll list just a few here:
One of Donald Trump’s first actions as president was to issue an executive order requiring agencies to repeal two protections for every new one issued.
So, if OSHA issues a new standard to protect workers from workplace violence, which two protections will OSHA remove? Maybe taking away a worker’s right to receive fall protection, or to be protected against trench collapses, or protection from being exposed to illnesses like hepatitis B?
Two years in a row, Trump has proposed the elimination of the Susan Harwood Worker Training Grant program—a program that provides funding to non-profit institutions like colleges, labor unions, small business associations, and worker rights groups to provide hands-on training to vulnerable workers and workers in small businesses. Happily, Congress funded the program this year, but Trump is trying to get rid of it again in next year’s budget.
OSHA is also attempting to roll back important worker protections issued during the Obama administration like beryllium protections for construction and maritime workers, and an important recordkeeping regulation that will provide information to OSHA and the public about companies’ safety and health record. And the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is considering weakening coal dust protections. Meanwhile, important rules to protect workers from the hazards of workplace violence, infectious diseases, and chemical plant disasters languish at OSHA.
And OSHA completely abandoned work on more than a dozen new rules including rules on combustible dust, noise in construction, and protecting workers from being backed over by construction vehicles.
Under the radar, OSHA withdrew its “walkaround policy” that gave nonunion workers the right to have a representative participate in OSHA inspections and stopped posting information on the home page of its website on all worker fatalities reported to OSHA.
And speaking of eliminating programs, the Trump administration has also proposed to eliminate the tiny Chemical Safety Board, the only government agency that performs root cause analyses of chemical plant incidents and makes recommendations to industry, labor and government agencies.
Research is also something the Republicans seem to think is bad as shown by administration’s proposal to slash the budget of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture, at the behest of the meat industry, is attempting to cut back on inspectors and speed up the line in poultry and hog production plants. These actions would not only undermine food safety, but also endanger workers who already suffer astronomical rates of musculoskeletal disorders. Fortunately, a public outcry has beaten back the USDA’s attempt to speed up poultry lines, but they’re currently driving to speed up hog production lines.
Not to be undone, embattled EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is also attacking worker protections (along with the air, water, and earth). Pruitt has suspended EPA’s chemical safety improvements that were blazing a path for OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) standard by introducing the concept of inherently safer processes into chemical plant safety planning and improving coordination between chemical plants and emergency responders. The modernization of EPA’s regulation and OSHA’s PSM standard stemmed from the 2013 explosion of a fertilizer facility in West, Texas that killed 12 emergency responders and three others.
Pruitt is also re-inventing the way science is used—or not used—to form the basis for environmental —and possibly worker—protections. Under the flimsy umbrella of “transparency,” a proposed new rule would allow EPA to only consider studies for which the underlying data are made available publicly. That means that landmark studies that the chemical industry hates, linking air pollution and pesticide exposure to harmful health effects, could not be considered because the studies used people’s confidential medical and occupational histories.
And it gets even more depressing. While government legal procedures put some limits on the ability of Pruitt and Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta to roll back worker and environmental protections, one area where the Trump administration has seen success is in the appointment of federal judges who are committed to reining in what conservatives call “the administrative state” by limiting the discretion that agencies like OSHA or EPA have when issuing and enforcing complex regulations.
The only good news is that Acosta has publicly affirmed his belief in the need to enforce the laws on the books. That’s a good thing—as long as we still have laws on the books. But the White House and corporate America are still trying to attack OSHA’s enforcement ability and roll back even more regulatory protections. It will take everyone’s work to ensure that OSHA doesn’t further undermine regulatory protections or stray from the path of the OSHA’s mission: to ensure a safe workplace for every American worker.
The need for increased efforts to protect workers is great, but the means are lacking. OSHA has not received a budget increase since 2010 and flat budgets mean fewer resources. Federally, OSHA now has only 764 safety and health inspectors and state OSHA programs have a combined 1,057 inspectors.
OSHA’s current budget (FY 2018) of $553 million amounts to $3.61 per worker. According to the AFL-CIO last year, if OSHA were to inspect every workplace just once, it would take 159 years. And that figure continues to get worse every year.
What is to be done?
Action by unions, lawsuits, and media oversight have slowed, but not stopped, the assault on workers by the Republican Congress and the Trump administration. The best way to stop them is to take back the House of Representatives—or even the Senate—in November.
Meanwhile workers and activists need to ensure that politicians, journalists, and government agencies are aware of what working people go through every day and the struggle takes to simply come home alive and healthy from work in this country. Only by educating, standing up, and fighting back will this scourge end.
Workers’ Memorial Day is the time to revitalize our commitment to fight for the living!