Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2019

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EDITORIAL:

By turning blind eye to worker safety, Trump turns his back on his base

President Donald Trump would have American workers believe he is their champion. But when it comes to protecting them from workplace accidents, nothing could be further from the truth.

By gutting safety regulations, dialing down enforcement by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and allowing employers to drive their production crews harder, the Trump administration is putting workers’ lives at increasing risk.

The administration’s disturbing actions include:

• Thinning the ranks of OSHA inspectors through attrition. The National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, reported that there were 875 inspectors as of Jan. 1, down from 952 in 2016. In 2010, there were more than 1,000.

• Conducting fewer complicated and high-penalty investigations of concerns such as explosion risks, heat exposure and dangerous chemicals.

• Idling five advisory committees on workplace health, safety and whistleblower protections.

• Gutting a 2016 rule requiring employers to submit detailed reports of workplace injuries to the Department of Labor. The requirement was designed to help inspectors identify hazardous work conditions and put pressure on businesses to comply with safety rules.

Then there are actions outside of OSHA. An example recently was revealed in a joint investigation by ProPublica and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which discovered that the Department of Agriculture allowed a number of chicken processing plants with spotty safety records to increase their production rates.

These plants are dangerous places, with workers often using knives inches away from their colleagues and surrounded by mechanized equipment. At one plant spotlighted by the news organizations, occupational injuries had resulted in hospitalizations, amputations and death.

Quickening the pace in such an environment increases the likelihood of accidents, experts said.

Yet the government, despite being fully aware of this, is essentially telling the workers, “Well, too bad for you.” The reason: The Department of Agriculture says it has no authority over workplace safety regulation, and OSHA says it has no authority over production speed.

“The USDA doesn’t care about worker safety, they just care about increasing profits for huge meatpacking companies,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff who directs the National Employment Law Project’s worker health and safety program. “If production increases and everybody has to work harder and faster in an already dangerous environment, that increases injuries.”

This is madness. And not surprisingly, the administration’s abandonment of workers appears to be causing workplace accidents to skyrocket.OSHA investigated 929 accidents resulting in fatalities or hospitalizations last year, up from 837 in 2017.

This is not only horrible for America’s workforce, it’s bad for business and the economy.

Yes, creating a safer workplace can be costly for businesses up-front. But the payoffs include less labor time lost, fewer production shutdowns and a reduction in long-term illnesses among workers, not to mention lives saved.

So in Trump’s reckless attacks on safety regulations, he’s hurting businesses in the long term while also leaving workers in greater peril.

The brutal irony here is that some of the workers who’ll be most vulnerable — those in mining, manufacturing and agriculture, to name a few industries with a heightened risk of workplace accidents — were among Trump’s most fervent supporters in 2016.

Those Americans trusted him to act in their best interests. He not only turned his back on them, he undercut their health and well-being.