On the heels of the longest partial shutdown of the federal government in U.S. history, labor advocates are voicing more significant, systemic concerns regarding regulatory oversight of workplace safety in the current administration. Those concerns are especially prominent in New York, where statistics have shown a dramatic increase in workplace deaths, and NYC’s most dangerous year for construction accidents in nearly a decade.
Despite those alarming trends, new data shows federal officials from the Department of Labor and its Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are issuing fewer fines for New York employers. An article from City Limits breaks down the numbers, noting that while OSHA workplace inspections have slightly increased in New York, federal regulators are:
- Citing fewer infractions per visit;
- Issuing less violations overall; and
- Taking inflation into account, issuing smaller penalties.
Experts agree the numbers signify a thematic and problematic issue with the current administration’s lax regulatory policies, which have resulted in a number of proposed safety measures being blocked, safety-related research stifled, and existing laws rolled back or slashed entirely.
A Nationwide Concern
Although OSHA has been critical to protecting men and women in American workplaces, and has reduced work-related injuries and deaths by 65% since it was created in 1971 (even while the U.S. workforce today is twice the size it was then), the agency is still being put on the backburner by federal officials. Labor leaders and workplace safety advocates say that while policy changes to OSHA and workplace regulations didn’t come as ferociously or immediately as they did to agencies like the EPA, there are still number of problems that create concerns nationwide:
- No leader – OSHA has not had a permanent leader for at least two years. As Scott Mugno awaits confirmation, acting administrator Loren Sweatt’s two-year tenure is the longest of its kind for the nearly 48-year-old agency.
- Fewer inspectors – Even without a leader, OSHA has seen changes, including fewer federal inspectors. When President Trump was first inaugurated in 2017, the agency had nearly 815 inspectors. As of January 2018, that decreased to 764 inspectors.
- More visits, less time – Although there were fewer inspectors, those who remained were conducting roughly 1.5% more work-site visits in 2017 than in 2016, but less than any other year under the previous administration. The visits have been criticized as consisting of less actual inspection, and focusing on worksites with fewer complications.
Less Complicated Inspections & New Policies
Inspection complexity, which is one of the most meaningful ways to assess OSHA’s work, is measured by “enforcement units.” This metric credits inspectors for the effort and time required of specific inspection-related tasks. Inspecting process-safety procedures at a chemical facility, for example, would yield 7 enforcement units, compared to just 2 netted by inspections of a federal agency.
These metrics, adopted in 2016, were created to increase focus on improving enforcement actions and policies related to health and safety issues in more challenging areas, such as toxic and chemical exposure, violence in the workplace, and process-safety management. A Freedom of Information Act filed by National Employment Law Project revealed OSHA’s enforcement units fell roughly 7% under the new administration.
In Terms of new policy changes, the Trump Administration has already begun to reshape OSHA with efforts such as:
- Redefining a rule that prohibited employers from retaliating against workers who reported injuries, illnesses, or job-related hazards by requiring them to take drug or alcohol tests.
- Nullifying the Volks Rule, which required companies to maintain work-related injury and illness records for at least 5 years.
- Proposing a new rule that requires companies with 250+ employees to keep OSHA 300 logs, but does not require them to submit logs electronically to a public database – something advocates fear may intimidate workers who want to check on their workplace safety history.
- Shuttering OSHA’s Whistleblower Advisory Committee, and four other workplace safety panels operating under the agency.
The Impact in New York
While OSHA and workplace safety may be heavily politicized, they are still critical to protecting workers. In New York, where the construction industry just experienced its most dangerous year on record in nearly a decade (2018), state officials found average fines issued by OSHA decreased by 7% in 2017. That’s despite OSHA increasing fines, for the first time since 1990, by nearly 80%.
OSHA penalties aren’t the sole eliminator of job-related injuries, occupational diseases, or fatal workplace accidents, but they are proven deterrents for preventing certain types of accidents, especially those involving safety equipment. In New York, however, OSHA has issued a substantially smaller number of violations than it did in previous years, and the median cost of those violations has also decreased. Many advocates also say that with the administration’s aggressive stance on immigration, many industries in New York see fewer calls from workers reporting injuries and unsafe conditions.
NYC Workplace Accident Attorneys: Doing Our Part to Protect Clients, Workers
As personal injury and workers’ compensation attorneys, our team at The Perecman Firm, P.L.L.C. doesn’t enforce regulations or oversee how our federal officials focus on workplace health and safety. Our job is to serve as advocates for those who have suffered harm, and to help them explore their options, protect their rights, and fight for the compensation they need and deserve.
This work, however, can play an important role in the “bigger picture,” especially when concerns over “who’s minding the shop” increase, and less oversight provides companies with greater opportunity to put profits over people’s safety. That means ensuring accountability, deterring employers, property owners, and product manufacturers from taking dangerous shortcuts or committing violations that endanger workers, and raising awareness about the need for better policies, oversight, and protections of the many men and women who work tirelessly to support themselves and their families.
If you have questions about any type of work-related accident in New York City or anywhere in the state – from construction accidents to third-party liability claims – The Perecman Firm, P.L.L.C. is here to help. Contact us request a free consultation.