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Workplace Deaths on the Rise, as OSHA Enforcement Lags Under President Trump


On-the-job deaths were up sharply last year, perhaps the clearest sign yet that the Trump Administration’s continuing crusade to dismantle vital safety protections is making the nation’s workplaces far more dangerous than ever.

OSHA Investigations and Inspections Have Plunged Since 2016

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigated 929 workplace deaths during 2018, up from 837 the prior year. Yet OSHA inspections and investigations were down overall, falling from 42,900 enforcement units in 2017 to just 41,479 in 2018.

Inspections of workplace hazards associated with musculoskeletal disorders (ergonomics) have dropped by two-third since 2016, while inspections focusing on workplace heat conditions were cut nearly in half. Meanwhile, OSHA’s inspection of dangerous chemicals decreased by two-thirds.

OSHA Has Lost 80 Inspectors Since 2016

While OSHA had 952 inspectors on staff in 2016, the agency was down to just 872 by 2018.

According to the National Employment Law Center (NELP), the staff reductions were largely the result of attrition and stagnation, as opposed to budget cuts. The agency routinely fails to replace staff who leave, and did not hire a single new inspector in 2017.

The manpower shortage likely contributed to OSHA’s increased reliance on “non-weighted inspections” in the Trump era. These inspections, which take less time and require fewer resources than standard inspections, rose from 27,662 in fiscal year 2016 to 28,322 in 2018.

OSHA sanctions for the highest-penalty violations fell by half between 2016 and 2018, suggesting it isn’t taking violations as seriously as in the past. The agency’s median penalty for a major violation in fiscal year 2017 was just $3,553, while its typical penalty for a work-related death was only $7,500.

OSHA’s Decline Reflects Trump’s General Hostility to Workplace Safety Regulation

“The latest data from OSHA is very alarming,” said Debbie Berkowitz, program director for worker safety and health at NELP and a former senior official with OSHA. “We’re seeing huge red flags in the continued drop in enforcement and staffing at OSHA, while the number of workplace fatality investigations is at a decade high.”

Unfortunately, the deterioration at OSHA is merely a reflection of President Trump’s general hostility towards any form of workplace safety regulation.

Since taking office in January 2017, his administration has weakened or eliminated dozens of regulations intended to protect workers and the public from catastrophic plant, refinery and pipeline explosions – including the Chemical Disaster Rule, OSHA’s combustible dust standards, and important offshore drilling regulations put in place after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion.

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