AFL-CIO: Trump-style job safety deregulation is killing workers
A nuclear bomb made at the Pantex plant in Carson County, Texas. Workers say thousands there have been sickened with and have died from exposure to beryllium at that plant. Trump has slashed regulations protecting workers from the toxic substance. | NNSA/Flickr (CC)

WASHINGTON—The GOP Trump administration’s rush to deregulate puts profits over people and poses a large threat to workers’ safety and health on the job, two top AFL-CIO officials say.

“If 150 workers died every day from terrorism, there would be a hue and cry,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka adds. “But when 150 die from occupational injuries and illnesses, there is not.”

Trumka and Peg Seminario, the federation’s veteran Director of Occupational Safety and Health, offered their analysis at the fed’s April 26 release of its annual report Death on the Job, just before Workers Memorial Day on April 28.

The 27th such report showed 5,190 workers died on the job in 2016, the latest year for which full federal data is available, and 50,000-60,000 more died from occupational illnesses contracted in prior working years. Deaths increased by several hundred, compared to 2015, for the first time since 2010.

There were 3.6 worker deaths per 100,000 workers on the job in 2016, the report adds, up from 3.4 per 100,000 the year before. But those numbers could go up under Trump’s deregulation push, the two warned.

At White House direction, Trump’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has already yanked several rules, notably measures to reduce worker exposure to dangerous beryllium and to force firms to keep injury records for five years, not six months. A federal court saved a third OSHA rule, on silica exposure, from Trump’s ax.

“Not a day goes by in Washington where there isn’t a controversy” over a federal job safety or other pro-worker rule, Trumka said. “Every day, CEOs and their hand-picked politicians” threaten job safety and health. “The right to life” and to “return safe and sound from a hard day’s work….is being tossed away for a few extra bucks in profit.”

“It’s a travesty that working people continue to lose their lives to corporate greed. The selfish and reckless decisions being made in boardrooms and in Washington are killing the very people who built this country. This is officially a national crisis, and it’s only getting worse,” he added.

The numbers could worsen because already understaffed OSHA is shrinking and states with their own OSHAs have problems, too, the report says. The number of OSHA inspectors, under Trump’s budget for the year starting Oct. 1 will be at the lowest level since 1974, just four years after the labor-pushed Occupational Safety and Health Act passed and GOP President Richard Nixon signed it.

There are so few OSHA inspectors it would take them 158 years to get to every U.S. workplace, the report says. “There might be some deterioration” between inspections, Trumka laconically said.

And though 400,000 workers have died on the job since 1970, there have been only 93 prosecutions of bosses responsible for that, Trumka said.  OSHA fines are so low — $7,500 if a worker dies, and $4,000 in those states with OSHAs of their own – that businesses do not view them as a deterrent, added Seminario.

“We really fear the aggressive rollbacks” of job safety and health rules “due to Trump’s executive orders” mandating federal agencies dump two rules for every one they announce.

Another indication of the potential rise comers from a separate report from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which covers calendar 2017 as well. MSHA said coal mining deaths on the job virtually doubled in a year, from eight in 2016 to 15 last year, while the number of coal miners rose by almost 1,000, to 82,843.

Despite that, Trump wants to reduce enforcement of anti-coal dust standards in coal mines. “Why you would have that when you have an increase in black lung fatalities makes no sense,” Seminario said.

“We’ve seen over time that when the government doesn’t enforce the rules of the road, you see an increase” in deaths and injuries, sometimes immediately and sometimes in subsequent years, she added.

The report also shows Wyoming (12.3 deaths per 100,000 workers), Alaska, Montana and the two Dakotas, in that order, were the most dangerous states to work in in 2016. Though Trumka did not say so, all but Alaska are so-called “right to work” states, where workers can use union services without paying one red cent for them – and where organized labor is relatively weaker.

The injury toll is even worse, with deaths and injuries from violence on the job, especially in health care, now rising to the #2 spot among all job injuries, surpassing even falls from buildings, Seminario said. There were 866 deaths from violence on the job in 2016, with 500 of them from homicides, the report says.

And for the nurses, who suffer the most, injuries are at the hands of patients or their relatives.

Adrienne Enghouse, president of the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, AFT Local 5017, illustrated that in telling what happened to her some time ago at Sunnyside Medical Center. She was giving medication to an 80-year-old man when he became violent “and kicked me in the chest across the room.”

But the incident also illustrated another point Seminario conceded: While deaths on the job are accurately reported, injuries and illnesses are not, for various reasons. “It’s part of the job,” Enghouse explained. “I called OSHA about it and they said” Sunnyside “wasn’t really violating a rule” about cutting down injuries from violence on the job – because there isn’t one.

Just before the Obama administration left office, National Nurses United petitioned OSHA to write such a rule requiring health care institutions to institute anti-violence measures and training. The request has dropped from sight under Trump, Seminario said. She also estimated the real number of injuries on the job is “two to three times” the reported figures.

OSHA’s administrator traditionally commemorates Workers Memorial Day with a statement or, during the Obama administration, a speech to a workers’ crowd. OSHA said the agency will issue a statement on April 27.

The full report, including state-by-state and industry-by-industry breakdowns, is available on www.aflcio.org.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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