If anyone knows the federal government’s record on worker safety, it’s Jordan Barab. For eight years, he was the number two official at OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) under Obama. Before that, he spent 16 years running the safety and health program at AFSCME, five years at the Chemical Safety Board, three years as OSHA’s labor liaison and ergonomics coordinator during the Clinton Administration, two years as Democratic policy adviser for the House Education and Labor Committee, and a short stint at the national AFL-CIO. Now semi-retired and freer than ever to speak his mind, he runs a blog about workplace safety called Confined Space. Don McIntosh of the Northwest Labor Press interviewed him by phone April 11.
What do you think of the people the Trump Administration has put in charge so far, including Loren Sweatt, who replaced you? Loren has been very, very low profile. I don’t think she’s made any speeches. I don’t think she’s conducted any interviews. OSHA’s basically been on autopilot. The career staff is basically running the place, which is not a bad thing. We still don’t know when we’ll have an assistant secretary [Ed note: The assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, OSHA’s top leader, must be confirmed by the Senate.]
Speaking of, last October Trump nominated FedEx executive Scott Mugno as Assistant Secretary of Labor in charge of OSHA. Mugno chaired the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’ OSHA subcommittee and has apparently never once come out in favor of a new OSHA rule. Any idea why the Senate hasn’t confirmed him? No. I don’t think, from what I hear, it’s anything personal. I think the Democrats and Republicans are still at war about appointments, and he’s not a particularly high priority. He doesn’t have a lot of Democratic support, and I don’t think anybody cares that much about OSHA. So he hasn’t risen to the top yet.
Have there been any changes to worker safety and health, positive or negative, since Trump took office? Well, first we saw two regulations repealed shortly after the administration began. One of those dealt with record keeping: We really wanted to enforce accurate record-keeping. The other was a regulation that would have required federal contractors to report past violations of the law, including OSHA, before they received any federal contract. It wasn’t blacklisting, as they accused us of, but it would at least have put federal agencies on notice that there had been violations in the past. Both of those regulations were repealed by Congress. Since then what we’ve seen is a proposed rollback of OSHA’s beryllium standard at least as it applies to construction and maritime workers.
Two years in a row, the Trump Administration has proposed the elimination of the Chemical Safety Board, which has an annual budget of just $11 million. You used to work for the Chemical Safety Board. What does it do, and what would be the result of its elimination? The Chemical Safety Board is a small independent government agency that investigates chemical plant explosions and chemical releases. They don’t have any enforcement authority, but they do conduct root-cause investigations, and they make recommendations then to entities such as EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] or OSHA, and to industry associations, labor unions, and sometimes state governments that may have a role in making the industry safer. It was created because experts in the field didn’t feel that OSHA or EPA were equipped to conduct thorough root-cause investigations. Mainly what OSHA’s concerned about is not necessarily the cause of an incident, but whether any OSHA standards have been violated. Sometimes there may be deeper causes of an incident than just a violation of standards. So what the Chemical Safety Board does is determine what the root causes are, and whether OSHA or EPA need to improve their existing standards or create new standards to protect worker and communities around chemical plants. It’s a small agency. It receives a fair amount of support from labor and industry, so nobody could quite figure out why they wanted to get rid of it, except maybe some people in the industry didn’t particularly like the recommendations. It’s never been a particularly controversial agency.
And what would its elimination mean? Would we notice it? I don’t know if your average person would notice it, but they have done some very good investigations that have led to improvements in OSHA standards and EPA standards, and improvements in industry consensus standards. They also put out education videos, which everybody loves, explaining how these incidents happen and how to prevent them. They make an important contribution to chemical safety in this country.
The Trump Administration has also twice proposed the elimination of OSHA’s Susan Harwood program of safety training grants, which is $10.5 million a year. Any idea why they’d want to look at something so small and get rid of it? Susan Harwood grants are provided to nonprofit organizations to provide hands-on training, often bilingual training. The grants go mainly to associations that represent small employers, labor unions, other nonprofits and universities. What Republicans have never particularly liked is that this is money that goes to labor unions. They like it even less than they used to because we really tried to focus the grants on addressing the issues of vulnerable workers — day laborers, immigrants, people whose first language is not English — the people that OSHA has a hard time reaching.
The biggest worker safety cut the Trump Administration is proposing is to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) at the Centers for Disease Control. The administration wants to cut $100 million out of its $300 million budget. That seems like an enormous cut. Can you explain what NIOSH does, and whether that might possibly be a very bad idea? NIOSH is kind of like the research arm of OSHA. They also provide funding to universities for training. They develop what they call educational resource centers. Those would be eliminated.
Have they offered any justification or reason for the cut? It’s the same justification with anything they try to cut: either the service the agency provides are duplicative or not needed.
Is there any merit to that in this case? No not at all. NIOSH performs a very important function. OSHA does not really conduct research. NIOSH conducts all the major research on occupational safety and heath issues, particularly in areas where OSHA doesn’t regulate yet. It could be musculoskeletal disorders, workplace violence, stress, hazards that affect workers that are not controlled by any government protections.
What are some other patterns you’re seeing with the Trump Administration on worker health and safety? At the beginning they basically stopped issuing press releases on large enforcement cases. In our administration, we had come under quite a bit of criticism for issuing press releases that allegedly shamed employers. Needless to say, the Obama Administration did not invent the press release, nor did we invent harsh language to use in a press release. But nevertheless they loved to criticize us for, again, “shaming” employers. which we didn’t expressly deny. We had a number of company attorneys tell us that a lot of medium-sized and large employers don’t really care about OSHA’s penalties — they’re too low to actually care about. But they care a lot about being named in an OSHA press release. They don’t like their reputation besmirched. So these companies are asking their attorneys for advice about how to stay out of an OSHA press release, and the attorneys are saying, “Just make your workplace safe so you don’t get cited.” If that’s the result of our press release, then I’d say, “Mission accomplished.” OSHA has now resumed issuing press releases. We’re not quite sure what criteria they’re using. But they seem to have realized there’s some value in issuing press releases.
I understand there’s also been steps taken to stop progress on new OSHA rules. There’s a whole list of them — combustible dust, styrene, noise in construction … can you speak to that? Yeah, first, in the early days of the administration, Trump issued the so-called “one in, two out” executive order requiring agencies to repeal two regulations for every one they added. So when you add to that the fact that Republican administrations, whether Trump or previously the Bush Administration, don’t like regulations at all, we didn’t have too much hope there was going to be a whole lot of regulatory activity in this administration. On top of that, OMB [the White House Office of Management and Budget] issues its regulatory agenda in the spring and the fall, and the first regulatory agenda under the administration did take a number of standards, mostly ones that were in the early stages, off of the regulatory agenda. There are a number of standards that they are supposedly working on: infectious diseases, chemical process safety management, workplace violence and a standard that would cover tree care. The only one of those that was actually mentioned in the last budget as something they may move forward on is communication towers, probably because even the industry has been advocating for it.
Speaking of process and delay, our publication has been rather critical over the years of the Obama Administration’s safety record, mostly for delay, and the silica rule is the prime example. Having been in the Obama Administration, were you frustrated by those delays as well? Yeah, extremely. That was the one thing that had the potential to keep me up at night. Especially in the last couple years of the first term. It’s extremely difficult to move forward on OSHA standards in best of circumstances. There’s just a lot of requirements that have to be met, and they’re resource-intensive, and they take a long time. But the instructions we got from the White House in about 2010 to well into 2013 were “don’t move forward on anything.” That set us back on a number of regulatory activities we would like to have completed in the eight years that we had.
So in that respect, the Trump Administration’s current stance is not that different. Well, we did end up issuing quite a few regulations. Silica was a major regulation, probably covers more workers than any other previous OSHA safety regulation. Beryllium. Walking working surfaces. Beryllium and silica had been worked on for close to 20 years. Walking working surfaces is something that OSHA literally began working on in 1972. It deals with fall protection and a number of other issues in general industry. Two pretty good record- keeping regulations. A major update in hazard communications standards. Crane and derrick standards. So we ended up issuing a fair number of regulations.
But would I be wrong to suggest that it was very much at the end of the eight years, and that a number of them were even taking effect after he was out, and have since been reversed or delayed? Some of them were, right at the end. We were very aware of the Congressional Review Act [Ed. note: a law that lets Congress repeal administrative rules implemented within 60 days of the end of a presidential administration.] We tried to get as many of them issued before that deadline came up as we could. Except for beryllium and walking working surfaces, we managed to get them all out before so they weren’t subject to the Congressional Review Act. Beryllium has been weakened, but actually survived the Congressional Review Act. They [Congress] could have taken that down but didn’t. And walking working surfaces was not controversial.
What’s the current status of the silica rule? I know it was delayed by the Trump Administration. It’s implemented and it’s being enforced now.
You’ve been at this for more than 30 years. What made you want to make worker safety your life’s work? It was kind of coincidence, actually. I was hired at AFSCME in 1982 as a labor economist, which meant you helped figure out what kind of money is available in cities, counties and states, to support bargaining and organizing efforts. But they also handed me a box the first day, and said, “You know what OSHA is, right?” And I had done a little bit of work with OSHA in an environmental organization. And they said, “Good, you’re now our OSHA person. We’ve been promising to put together some manuals and fact sheets. That’s now your job.” That ended up being a lot more interesting than the labor economics. Then in 1987 we got our first OSHA grant, and it really took off. You know, AFSCME represents public employees and really had never had any kind of health and safety program before. A lot of people, even in AFSCME, thought public employees didn’t have any health and safety issues. But we represented wastewater treatment workers, highway workers, hospital workers, corrections officers, all kinds of people that had very dangerous jobs. Plus, public employees aren’t covered by OSHA in most states, so that made it even worse.
CONFINED SPACE BLOG: There aren’t many blogs about worker safety. Jordan Barab’s might be the best. See it, and subscribe, here.