The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 12, 2017

Death on the job: Labor fears aftermath of relaxing OSHA rules

By The Building Tradesman

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON - The Trump administration and the GOP-run Congress could undo years of progress in protecting safety and health on the job, the AFL-CIO’s top official in the field says.

The progress in worker safety has been great, but workers still die on the job every other hour, year-round. 

In a telephone press conference accompanying the federation’s release of its annual Death on the Job report, federation Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario said the impact would come from both repeal of regulations and from cuts in the Labor Department budget. The AFL-CIO released the report in advance of Workers Memorial Day, April 28.

Department of Labor budget cuts could include cutting Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Mine Safety and Health Administration funds. Business wants to cut OSHA, particularly enforcement. Trump wants to cut the overall DOL budget 21 percent.

“What we’ve seen is a number of executive orders that deal with regulation,” or, to be more precise, deregulation, Seminario explained. “He (Trump) said during the campaign that he wants to cut rules by 70 percent, and this is one promise that it looks like he’ll keep.”

That could have a profound impact on future job safety and health of the nation’s workers, she said, especially since in the last eight years, the Obama administration implemented major rules to cut worker exposure to health hazards such as beryllium and silica. The AFL-CIO's report details the advances under Obama, too. 

“And we did see penalties go up, particularly for serious violations” of job safety, Seminario said. OSHA and other federal agencies pushed that initiative through last year’s GOP-run Congress, convincing lawmakers to raise OSHA fines for the first time since 1990 and then index them to inflation. 

In an instance of the future harms Seminario fears from Trump and the GOP, the two repealed an OSHA rule requiring employers to retain accurate job safety and health records for five years, not six months. “We’ve also seen the delays in silica and beryllium rule enforcement and that can cost workers’ lives” even if those OSHA rules ultimately take effect, she warned. 

The budget cuts could also mean OSHA’s “capacity, or lack of capacity, to deal with” job safety and health violations on an industry-wide basis would shrink, Seminario warned. The agency already has so few inspectors, the report says, that a federal OSHA inspector can visit a covered workplace on an average of once every 159 years, a record low. 

Other key findings from the report, which covers deaths and injuries on the job in 2015, the most recent full year available, include:
• Hazardous working conditions killed 13 workers a day, 365 days a year. 

• 4,836 workers were killed on the job in the United States in 2015, and the fatality rate “flatlined,” Seminario said, at 3.4 deaths per 100,000 workers, identical to 2014. That figure does not count the 50,000-60,000 workers who died last year from diseases they earlier contracted on the job, such as black lung disease and various cancers. 

• Nearly 3.7 million work-related injuries and illnesses were reported, but the true toll, from workers comp claims and other data, is double to triple that number, the AFL-CIO says. 

• The number of Latino worker deaths on the job jumped by 99, to 903, in 2015. Their fatality rate was 4.0 per 100,000 workers, 18 percent above the national figure. Seminario said one reason is Latino workers are overrepresented in three high-hazard, high-death rate occupations: Farming, construction and transportation.

• There were 937 construction workers killed in 2015, the highest number in any sector. The number and rate of construction deaths increased for the second year in a row, to 10.1 deaths per 100,000 workers.