Will Trump’s Labor nominee keep workers safe?
Twenty-year old Regina Elsea was employed as a temporary worker in an auto parts plant in Alabama. When she wasn’t working, she was planning her wedding for the summer of 2016. But just two weeks before the big day, her plans came to a horrific end while she was at work. The plant assembly line stopped, and she and three coworkers entered a robotic station to clear a sensor fault. While she was inside the machine, the robot restarted abruptly, crushing her to death.
An investigation by the government’s workplace safety agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), found that her tragic death could have been prevented had Regina’s employers followed basic safety precautions. Her employers had never implemented the basic safety procedures, around for decades, to prevent machines from starting up when workers are inside. This is one of the oldest and most basic of all safety rules. In December, OSHA levied more than $2.5 million in fines against the company.
As the Senate gets ready to consider the President Trump’s nomination of Andrew Puzder for U.S. secretary of Labor, it’s important that worker safety issues get the full attention they deserve during his confirmation hearings. Puzder is an outspoken critic of regulations who fails to acknowledge the crucial role that regulations play in saving lives, protecting workers’ health, and even saving businesses money through lower insurance costs, for example. In more than 50 percent of the OSHA investigations in CKE restaurants and franchises since 2000, OSHA has found violations.
Last year, 4,850 American workers were killed on the job. That’s an astonishing 13 workers a day who, like Regina, went to work and never came home. Without strong enforcement of safety regulations, the casualties would be much higher. The fact is that workplace fatalities and serious injuries are preventable when employers follow common-sense safety rules. The Obama administration, through OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, has worked tirelessly to keep workers safe by acting on its strong belief that no worker should have to sacrifice health or life for a job.
After OSHA’s resources were depleted during the George W. Bush administration, the Obama administration came in and immediately sought a substantial increase in the number of workplace safety inspectors. Even with these added resources, however, it would still take OSHA more than 145 years to visit every workplace under its jurisdiction just once. The number of OSHA inspectors is lower now than at the beginning of the Reagan administration.
To use these new resources smartly, OSHA implemented new enforcement initiatives, including targeting programs to protect workers in workplaces where there is a hostile attitude to even basic compliance with safety rules. With a commitment to holding business accountable when they cut corners and endanger America’s workers, the Obama administration issued nearly 1,200 enforcement actions involving serious penalties versus less than 800 in the previous administration.
This commitment to strong enforcement safeguarded the nation’s workers. Thanks to strong and effective safety enforcement over the last eight years, fatalities in the nation’s mining industry are at an all-time low, and workplace fatalities as a whole are down by almost 1,000 a year, according to data from Obama’s second term, compared to an equivalent time period at the end of the George W. Bush administration.
It may surprise Puzder to know that enforcement of safety regulations not only saves lives and suffering, but it also saves money for employers. A substantial body of empirical evidence, including recent studies conducted by the Rand Corporation, and by the business schools of Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley, confirm that OSHA inspections result in substantially and persistently reduced rates of both injuries and employer insurance costs, all to the tune of billions of dollars annually for employers, both large and small.
Regina’s story—which is one among thousands last year—should send a clear message to the incoming administration that strong enforcement of safety rules is a must to safeguard America’s workers.
Puzder, however, has spent years railing against such regulations. Enforcement of OSHA regulations saves lives and saves employers money. OSHA’s new rule reducing allowable airborne silica dust levels will save over 600 lives a year. Will Puzder decide that in his cost-benefit analysis, their lives are not worth saving?
We cannot afford to have someone with such a fundamental misallocation of priorities in the role of chief advocate for our nation’s workers. The Senate must conduct a vigorous investigation into Puzder’s values and priorities. If he is as unsuited to this position as the record appears, the Senate must deny him confirmation.
Deborah Berkowitz is a senior fellow in work safety and health for the National Employment Law Project. She previously served as chief of staff and senior policy advisor at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) during the Obama administration.
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