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OSHA under Trump: A closer look

Legal experts are predicting significant changes for worker safety regulation under the new administration

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Photo: Michael Vadon

Philosophical shift

Delaney expects OSHA to shift from an enforcement-based strategy toward more compliance assistance – the opposite of what was seen during Former President Barack Obama’s eight years in office.

“A policy example of this in action may see the Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which created OSHA’s ‘bad actor’ list, taking a back seat to the Voluntary Protection Program,” Delaney said.

In general, OSHA funding tends to increase under Democratic administrations and decrease under Republican administrations. Trump’s team also could change the way OSHA spends its money, for example, by reducing the agency’s enforcement budget. Kittaka said the new administration could decrease the number of higher-fine, repeat violations by shortening the time frame under scrutiny to three years from five years.

OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice have collaborated in recent years to pursue individual indictments and prosecutions related to alleged worker safety crimes. Conn said a new attorney general – combined with newly appointed U.S. attorneys – could prompt a return to the previous approach, with far fewer worker safety criminal investigations and prosecutions.

Likewise, OSHA’s strategy of “regulation by shaming” through the use of negative press releases is also likely to be reduced or eliminated. The approach was common under the previous OSHA team, which filled its website with press releases that called out violators and demanded corrective actions.

Kittaka, who represents employers, said his clients are optimistic that the Trump administration could usher a business-friendly climate in which worker safety remained a priority.

“For the most part, I think employers are trying to do the right thing,” Kittaka said. “Nobody wants to hurt their employees. You’re going to have some bad apples out there that will get hit – and should – if they really are endangering their employees. But for the most part, employers lose money because of lost-time injuries. That’s not what they want to do. Most companies are trying to produce a product. There’s no evil intent.”

Conn agreed, saying his employer clients are “cautiously optimistic” that the business environment will improve. However, he has heard from safety professionals who are worried about how Trump might affect their mission.

“A lot of safety professionals are able to use the threat of significant enforcement to get their own issues prioritized by management,” Conn said. “I suspect, and I have heard from a fair number of safety directors, safety managers, corporate safety directors, that they are concerned that safety might become less of a priority to senior management if it is less of a priority to the regulator.”

A look back

After eight years in office, Former President Barack Obama and his administrative team no longer play a role in workplace safety regulations. Workplace fatalities increased to 4,836 in 2015, which marked the highest number since Obama took office, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. OSHA’s budget has held steady at about $552 million in recent years.

President Barack Obama

During his tenure, Obama often turned to Executive Orders in order to establish new rules. President Donald Trump could use the same process to undo Obama’s actions.

Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez

Perez was sworn in as labor secretary on July 23, 2013. He was a strong proponent of paid family leave and oversaw efforts to increase civil penalty amounts for labor violations.

OSHA Administrator David Michaels

Michaels left his post in January as the longest-serving administrator in OSHA history. He pushed for rules to protect temporary workers, non-English-speaking workers and others with high rates of injury and illness.

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