The White House quietly rolled back workplace safety rules during the shutdown

The White House quietly rolled back workplace safety rules during the shutdown

The partial government shutdown may have disrupted air travel and triggered financial hardship, but it didn’t stop the White House from continuing to dismantle regulations meant to protect US workers.

On Friday, the Trump administration gutted a 2016 rule that required most employers to electronically submit detailed reports of all workplace injuries to the Department of Labor each year — reports they’ve long been required to keep, but never required to submit.

The Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses rule would have allowed the government, for the first time, to get more complete data on how many US workers are injured on the job and how those injuries happened. Enacted under the Obama administration, it was supposed to help inspectors identify dangerous work conditions, and in turn pressure businesses to comply with workplace safety laws.

But in 2017, the Trump administration put the electronic reporting rule on hold, then amended it this summer to let employers off the hook. Employers would no longer have to submit the detailed injury reports — just a summary report.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which reviews regulations before they are published, then rushed the amendment through the three-month review process in just six weeks — even though the office was closed during the shutdown and two-thirds of the office’s employees were furloughed. By Friday, the changes were finalized and published.

The move caught labor leaders off-guard and drew sharp criticism from public health researchers, who rely on injury data to analyze health risks and develop prevention programs. Public Citizen, a nonprofit group that promotes research-based policies to improve occupational health, immediately filed a lawsuit with two other public health groups to block the changes. The AFL-CIO labor federation accused the department of ramming through the controversial changes as a favor to big business groups, who oppose the rule.

“The process was totally opaque, not transparent, and clearly rushed,” Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s safety and health director, told me. “The only reason this was rushed through was because the Trump administration wanted to relieve employers of having to report their injury data.”

A spokesperson for OMB did not respond to a request for comment from Vox. The Department of Labor referred Vox’s request to the Department of Justice, which represents federal agencies in litigation. As of publication time, the DOJ had not responded to Vox’s inquiry.

The Trump administration’s rollback of the injury reporting rule is the latest example of the president’s anti-worker economic agenda. Since taking office, the Department of Labor has systematically tried to weaken regulations meant to protect workers’ pay, retirement, and safety. For example, the agency tried to change pay rules to allow employers to pocket workers’ tips, and delayed a rule to extend overtime pay to millions of workers. These moves clash with Trump’s populist campaign promises, and hurt many of the blue-collar workers who voted him into office.

Researchers say they don’t have enough data to protect workers

Public health researchers have long tried to get accurate data on how often workers are injured each year. But the only data available comes from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) workplace inspections, which do not cover every job site every year, and from an annual survey of 80,000 employers.

That survey has shown a steady decline in overall injury rates, but the survey only covers a sample of businesses in certain hazardous industries — so it’s impossible to know how often restaurant cooks or hotel housekeeper are injured, for example. And the injury data that is available in the survey has few details anyway, making it hard for government inspectors, labor groups, and healthcare researchers to identify workplaces with dangerous working conditions.

Until 2017, employers were required to keep detailed logs for OSHA, but didn’t have to submit them each year. Only the most serious injuries and deaths had to be immediately reported. But even a third-degree burn that ends with a trip to the emergency room doesn’t count as serious if it doesn’t lead to in-patient hospitalization, according to OSHA guidelines.

Employers liked it that way. So they were unhappy when the Obama administration finalized the electronic reporting rule in 2016, which required them to electronically send detailed reports each year, starting in 2017. Two months after the rule was finalized, a group of steel, construction and manufacturing companies sued the Department of Labor, calling the rule “arbitrary” and “capricious.” The lawsuit is still tied up in a Texas federal court.

A coalition of industry groups has been trying to get Trump’s Labor Department to scrap this rule, saying that the injury data would “not provide insight into the effectiveness or lack thereof of safety programs and instituted safety practices in the workplace.” The US Chamber of Commerce, which also opposed the detailed reporting rule, said the data would expose businesses to “frivolous lawsuits.”

In the end, OSHA decided to repeal the requirement to report detailed injury data, but for a different stated reason: to protect workers’ privacy. The agency said in its final rule, published Friday, that the change would prevent “routine government collection of information that may be quite sensitive, including descriptions of workers’ injuries and the body parts affected, and thereby avoiding the risk that such information might be publicly disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).”

After the changes were proposed in June during the amendment process, the agency was flooded with thousands of comments (most in opposition, some in support). Hundreds of workers and labor groups were calling BS. But it didn’t seem to matter.

Labor groups say the privacy claim is bogus

Labor union leaders said the workers they represent aren’t actually concerned about the privacy issue. Seminario of the AFL-CIO points out that other agencies collect similar information, and there’s no privacy risk because the government isn’t allowed to share confidential information anyway under FOIA.

Hundreds of individual workers also lashed out at the administration for weakening the reporting rules.

“It’s shocking to me that our president cares so little about the working people like me who voted for him,” wrote Karl Mantyla, a Trump voter from Farmington Hills, Michigan. “Does he truly want to gut OSHA health and safety rules, putting workers in danger — merely to fatten the wallets of already rich employers and CEOs?”

But the Trump administration sided with business groups, and OSHA gutted the rule anyway. In December, Seminario said she was shocked to find out that the rule had been sent to OMB for a final review. She said she requested a meeting, but never heard back, and assumed the shutdown had put the rule review process on hold. But it hadn’t.

On January 17, OMB finished the review and signaled that changes would soon be published— a process that usually takes three months. Once again, Seminario sent an email, urging OMB to delay the rollback until they can have a meeting.

“I was surprised and disturbed to see that review of deregulatory actions is apparently considered an essential function, but involving the public in this process is not,” Seminario wrote in an email to OMB, a copy of which was shared with Vox. “I am renewing my earlier request for a meeting and would ask that OMB recall the draft OSHA rule until this meeting occurs.”

Once again, no response.

By the time the rule was finalized on Friday, a group of public health organizations was ready with a lawsuit, arguing that the Labor Department was violating the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs the rule-making process:

Public Citizen, the nonprofit group that promotes research-based policies to improve occupational health, is among the groups suing. It wants to use the detailed data to improve workplace safety training programs, and in turn, prevent more job-related deaths and disabilities.

But the backlash over the changes was drowned out Friday by familiar White House chaos: the arrest of a Trump campaign adviser in connection to the Russia investigation, and the president’s decision to temporarily reopen the government after grinding it to a halt.

Once again, dysfunction at the White House overshadowed the administration’s methodical effort to weaken rules meant to protect American workers.


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