A number of workplace safety advocates fear fatalities will soar as Trump cuts back on the federal work safety watchdog Occupation Safety and Health Administration (Osha).
The latest Death on the Job report from union federation AFL-CIO, released to time with Workers’ Memorial Day, showed a slight dip in deaths from 2016, when 5,190 people died on the job. Some 5,147 people were killed on the job in 2017, Donald Trump’s first year in office. But the true toll of work-related injuries and illnesses may be closer to 7m to 10.5m each year, according to a report released on Thursday.
Under the Trump administration, Osha has cut workplace safety inspectors to the lowest level in its 48-year history as an agency. The report also shows that Osha has cut by more than half the number of the highest level of legal action brought against employers for violations of workplace safety law.
In 2016, 815 federal workplace inspectors were employed by Osha down from nearly 1,000 in 2010 after years of budget cutting by a GOP-controlled Congress. Now, through attrition and a federal hiring freeze imposed by the Trump administration, only 752 inspectors are employed.
Osha has also drastically decreased the number of willful violations citations from workplace safety laws, from 542 under the last year of the Obama administration in 2016 to 341 in 2017. Additionally, the number of what Osha defines as “serious enforcement actions” dropped from 131 in 2016 to 53 last year.
“Sometimes, there’s a tendency among some of the very dangerous industries to cut corners and if these industries don’t get reminded that Osha’s there, they are inclined to go ahead and cut corners and its workers that will pay the price,” said the National Employment Law Project’s Debbie Berkowitz, who served as chief of staff of Osha under Obama.
With a small budget of approximately $550m even during the height of Obama years, workplace safety advocates calculated that Osha only had the resources to inspect every workplace once every 129 years. Now with even less inspectors, Osha would need 165 years to visit every workplace in America.
“They have let the staffing get so low that the agency is cutting back on the limited enforcement that they already do and I think that could have a long-term effect,” said Berkowitz. “Workers will pay the price with more injuries and more worker deaths.”
In addition to allowing the number of Osha inspectors to drop, the Trump administration has also cut ties and funding with immigrant and community groups that OSHA had successfully partnered with to help reduce workplace deaths in many areas.
“We can definitely tell that there are changes when we meet with Osha,” said Marianela Acuña-Arreaza, executive director of Fe y Justicia Worker Center in Houston, where 101 workers were killed on the job last year. “There is definitely a shift in priorities. The policies that they make have consequences and they can literally be measured in lives lost”.
In 2017, the first year of the Trump administration for which full data is available, Latino workplace deaths increased from 879 deaths in 2016 to 927 deaths in 2017, with foreign-born immigrant Latino workers constituting 63% of those deaths. Workplace safety advocates say a crippling sense of fear has prevented many immigrants from speaking up.
“All the time, we hear stories of employers threatening to call Ice on workers if they speak up,” said Acuña-Arreaza. “Workers are more scared than they were in the past. People are scared to get deported under this Administration.”
Workplace safety advocates fear proposed further cuts, eliminating the federal agency the Chemical Safety Board, which regulate safety in many chemical plants as well as cutting the budget of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (Niosh) by 40%, will make matters worse.