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Obama’s Workplace Safety Record

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Elias Isquith has a Q&A with Jamie Smith Hopkins and Jim Morrison from the Center for Public Integrity, which has released a new series of reports on workplace safety in the United States. They have pretty harsh words for President Obama:

Were you surprised to hear David Michaels, the head of OSHA, speak so frankly to his agency’s lack of capability? That isn’t something you hear from government officials especially often, regardless of whether it’s true.

JM: I found that striking. They’ve actually been saying that for several years. In 2013, OSHA put out a press release saying as much. They said that our limits don’t protect workers in the vast majority of cases. I’ve told Jamie and my co-workers that I can’t recall another federal agency publicly saying, Sorry, but we really can’t do a whole lot. You are on your own. That’s pretty much what OSHA has been saying for a couple of years. It’s amazing.

JSH: What they’re arguing is not that they don’t want to do anything, but that they’ve been hemmed in by core decisions and other things that prevent them from issuing rules in a timely fashion. Rules do get put out, but very slowly.

People assume Democratic presidents are more pro-regulation than Republican ones. Has that proven to be the case during the Obama years?

JSH: There has been one health rule that has been put out during the Obama administration. Certainly when you compare it to 20 or 30 years ago.

JM: Simply put, the Obama administration really isn’t any better or much better than the Bush [administration]. It’s not a good record.

No it’s not. Now, one issue is of course OSHA funding. And while Obama has not made this, or workplace safety generally, a high priority, certainly Congress holds no small amount of fault here. Still, the Obama administration could do a lot more through reorienting OSHA toward more efficient ways of dealing with risks on the job and through executive orders. The only president who ever really valued OSHA to the point of making it a political priority was Jimmy Carter. And that’s too bad. One would have hoped that an event like the West, Texas factory explosion would have put a jolt into American politics that we need to take safety and health more seriously, but it completely disappeared from the national conversation by the next news cycle.

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  • Joseph Slater

    In fairness, several Supreme Court decisions really do make it an arduous and inevitably very long process to put out a new OSHA standard. And there’s not much I can think of that a President or agency can do about that. Also, even a relatively well-funded agency is never going to have enough inspectors to really police the millions of workplaces OSHA covers, or even most of the most dangerous ones. This doesn’t mean things couldn’t be somewhat better, and it is disappointing that workplace safety isn’t a bigger topic of conversation, but this issue isn’t like amending the regulations that determine who is entitled to overtime under the FLSA.

    Finally, you should give some credit to Bill Clinton. Under Clinton, OSHA issued a very aggressive standard on ergonomic injuries — which the Republicans, under G.W. Bush, promptly repealed.

    • Agreed. It’s ridiculous to blame Obama for this. The rulemaking process is extremely cumbersome, and it can take years. Doing it chemical by chemical, which is what is currently required, is like sweeping the beach. And indeed, OSHA has no ability to enforce the standards that exist. You seem to have succumbed to Green Lanternism in this case.

      • We need to use “green lanternism” when appropriate, not every time someone criticizes the president for inaction, even when that criticism is tempered with a discussion of the structures making meaningful change difficult, such as I did above when discussing Congress. Joe’s point about the Court certainly applies as well.

        Let’s not use the term to the point that it becomes meaningless.

        • I agree we need to be careful about misuse of green lanternism, but to be fair, your article just says “Still, the Obama administration could do a lot more through reorienting OSHA toward more efficient ways of dealing with risks on the job and through executive orders.”

          Do you have any pointers on what could actually be done? I mean, are these things he can just do on his own by order (or just instruction)?

          • dilan

            It isn’t just “misuse”. Just about every time someone criticizes Obama for anything around here, someone pipes up and says that whatever the person advocates was impossible anyway. And makes fun of moving the Overton window, and third parties, and all the rest.

            The reality is that there’s no way that Obama, or any political actor, goes as far as possible. Indeed, there’s no guarantee that any political choice was even made because it was as far as could possibly be gone– that tends not to be the way political advisors think.

            It’s a far cry from “green lanternism” to say that policy priorities of the White House matter, and that there can sometimes be benefits gained even by trying and failing to do something. Sometimes, in fact, the fact that something failed doesn’t mean it couldn’t have succeeded with better luck or won’t succeed in the future.

            An example where Obama does do this: every time there’s a shooting he talks about gun control. (His rhetoric sucks on it, but I can’t have everything. :) ) And then we pass nothing. And that may mean that it’s a waste of his effort.

            But it doesn’t NECESSARILY mean that. It could be that just like what happened with the confederate flag, some event will happen that will just turn the tide and open the floodgates, and all that work that the administration did on gun control could eventually pay off.

            And therefore, it’s notable that what Obama does do on gun control, he doesn’t do on some other issues, like prosecuting rich people in the finance industry, or the workplace safety issue Erik flags.

            As long as it isn’t overclaimed (“oh, if Obama would just talk about this we could win on the issue and change anything”), there’s no reason to call these sorts of arguments green lanternism.

            • joe from Lowell

              You’ve confused green lanternism with the BULLY PULPIT.

            • joe from Lowell

              Damn edit timer.

              Green lanternism is the theory that the President has unlimited powers to implement policy, public and Congressional opinion be damned.

              The theory “oh, if Obama would just talk about this we could win on the issue and change anything” is BULLY PULPIT.

              The criticism here isn’t that Erik overestimates Obama’s capacity of convince other people of OSHA’s goodness, but that he (and the source he links to) look at the policy outcomes over the past several year and define them as “Obama’s Workplace Safety Record,” as if those policy outcomes are solely a reflection of his preferences an priorities.

              • dilan

                I think it’s fair to hold presidents responsible for these policies if they do nothing to try to change them. So it is Obama’s Workplace Safety Record.

                Now, you can argue there wasn’t a single thing Obama could have changed for the better. But it seems to me that’s something where the Obama defender has the burden of proof.

                • Joseph Slater

                  I feel as if you may be using my comment to continue a battle you’ve been having with other people. My point is, speaking as a labor and employment law guy, it’s a lot harder for a president to fix the problems with OSHA than, say, it is to fix at least some of the problems with the FLSA.

                  Out of curiosity, and pace your point about “burden if proof,” if you want to stick to this one particular subject and not use it as a springboard to make broader points, what do you think Obama realistically could have done to significantly improve OSHA functioning?

                • dilan

                  I think Erik’s OP is pretty persuasive that there was more Obama could have done.

                • Joseph Slater

                  I respect Erik a great deal, but I’m not sure what he meant specifically by executive orders re OSHA.

                  More to the point, nobody was arguing that it was “impossible” that anyone could have done anything more than Obama has done. I, and Cervantes, were just pointing out that Supreme Court decisions that Obama really can’t do anything about constrain OSHA in some very important, structural ways. And that is more true in this area than in some other areas of workers’ rights.

        • What specific inaction are you criticizing?

        • joe from Lowell

          We also need to use “Obama’s _____________ record” when appropriate, not every time you think casting an issue that way makes effective click bait.

    • Certainly Clinton does deserve credit on the ergonomics standard.

  • LosGatosCA

    it’s hard to help people who won’t help themselves – thinking specifically mid-term non-voters and anti-union working class folks.

    Keep voting in or acquiescing with others who vote in, anti-regulatory, anti-worker governors, state legislatures, congress people, and senators and pretty soon even the folks who would support you think you don’t give a damn for workplace safety, working conditions, wages, job dignity, or even basic equity in income distribution.

    Apathy breeds, guess what? apathy.

  • efc

    What could be done without any GOP or chamber of commerce interference is education. Workers are OSHAs eyes and ears. As someone said above, OSHA can’t patrol the millions of American workplaces. People need to know about OSHA, the regulations OSHA currently enforces, their rights under the statute to report safety hazards free from retaliation or intimidation, and how to file a complaint.

    Of course, OSHA funding would dictate their ability to respond to complaints. But if employers knew their workers will report safety violations it might encourage the employers to do some preemptive fixes.

    • Linnaeus

      People need to know about OSHA, the regulations OSHA currently enforces, their rights under the statute to report safety hazards free from retaliation or intimidation, and how to file a complaint.

      Yep – it’s amazing (or maybe not) how little information employers provide about safety regulation and what workers can do, so workers are often very underinformed about safety issues and have no idea where to go to do something about safety problems.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if fear of retaliation figures in there somewhere. A friend of mine has a child in daycare/preschool and one of the staff there noticed a lot of paint chips scattered in the playground area (it’s an older building, and she feared it had lead paint). She called the EPA, and when the preschool found out, they fired her. If they would do that, surely they’d fire her if she called OSHA.

    • Joseph Slater

      This is an area where unions can be, and often are, enormously helpful: knowing the OSHA rules, informing workers about OSHA rules and procedures, accompanying OSHA inspectors on workplace inspections, writing health and safety rules geared to the workplace into union contracts and enforcing same, etc. This doesn’t always happen perfectly, or at all, even with unions, and to the extent these rules can sometimes make work get done more slowly or requires more resources, some employers fight it. But it’s much more likely to happen with a union present.

      • Bruce Vail

        Yes, this.

        OSHA regulations can only be effective if there is somebody on the worksite who knows how to make the rules work. DOL can never hire enough inspectors to do this effectively, so that’s where the union safety rep can be critical.

  • Matt McIrvin

    The only president who ever really valued OSHA to the point of making it a political priority was Jimmy Carter.

    And I remember all the ridicule and outrage he got for that. Cartoons about meddling OSHA bureaucrats requiring brooms to have guardrails on them, that sort of thing.

    • cekman76

      Here’s a minor example: one of the first home computer games I had as a kid was Hard Hat Mack. It came out in 1983, one of EA’s first games. It was basically a Donkey Kong knock-off, set on a construction site where you, the worker, had to dodge flying rivets, vandals, and, most frightening of all… the man from OSHA.

      I’ve wondered for years if some Reagan apparatchik or think-tank sharpie helped dream that up.

  • Aaron Morrow

    I wanted to look up some historical budget numbers to see how OSHA got nailed by sequestration, and I found this in the President’s Budget:

    The current appropriations language limits OSHA’s ability to conduct safety and health inspections of small businesses (10 or fewer employees) in industry codes that have lower than average workplace injury and illness rates. Neither the number of workers in a business, nor the level of injury and illness rates, are predictive of the potential for high consequence catastrophic incidents, resulting in multiple casualties and extensive property damage, such as those caused by the West Fertilizer explosion in West, Texas.
    In order to prevent future catastrophic incidents, the Administration believes Congress should modify the appropriations language to allow targeted inspections of small establishments that have the potential for catastrophic incidents (e.g., those covered by OSHA’s PSM standard or EPA’s Chemical Accident Prevention Provisions).

    http://www.dol.gov/dol/budget/2016/PDF/CBJ-2016-V2-12.pdf

    I still think Obama shouldn’t have agreed to sequestration in the first place; budget cuts caused a lot of the problems we’re seeing here. However, between this specific call for changes to Republican rule making, and the 7% increase in his FY16 budget request over FY15, and I think Obama is making clear that the current situation is not where he wants OSHA to be.

    I can’t recall another federal agency publicly saying, Sorry, but we really can’t do a whole lot. You are on your own. That’s pretty much what OSHA has been saying for a couple of years. It’s amazing.

    Sequestration sucks. It’s hard to do the same with less people, let alone more with less people.

  • Bruce Vail

    One thing we can legitimately criticize Obama for is the appointment of Hilda Solis as his first Sec’y of Labor.

    Now, I’m sure Solis is a good person in a lot of ways, but she was an obscure backbencher in Congress with no especial qualifications for the job. She was a female Hispanic, so she met the basic tokenism requirement, but that seems to be the sum total of her qualifications.

    Perez is a huge improvement. But a better-qualified, more aggresive appointment back in 2009 would have made a difference.

    • Joseph Slater

      Seth Harris as deputy, and then acting, SoL was a very good thing, though.

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