Clinton Would Likely Follow Obama on Worker Safety

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By Stephen Lee

June 9 — Hillary Clinton's track record in the Senate suggests that, if elected president, she would continue the Obama administration's efforts to protect worker safety, sources say.

In practical terms, that would likely mean pressing forward with proposed rules already in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's pipeline, keeping up the same level of tough enforcement and proposing Obama-esque budget increases for OSHA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“She would continue to be a strong advocate for working people, and a committed, competent leader to the agencies at the Department of Labor,” Peg Seminario, safety and health director at the AFL-CIO, told Bloomberg BNA.

‘An Important Ally.'

A look at Clinton's tenure in the Senate, where she served on the subcommittee with worker safety oversight, offers some clues about how she would handle OSHA as president.

As New York's junior senator from 2001 to 2009, Clinton called for a ergonomics regulation, hounded OSHA to revise its cranes and derricks rule and sponsored the Protecting America's Workers Act to reform the agency.

“She was a very strong voice on worker safety issues,” Seminario said.

Perhaps most visibly, Clinton helped win funding for the medical monitoring of Sept. 11 first responders.

“Hillary was an important ally,” recalled Joel Shufro, then-executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. “We worked closely with her staff after 9/11. She provided important leadership, holding the first hearing in New York City after the attack. Hillary took the issue seriously, was a strong advocate and powerful spokesperson and raised issues about the impact of contaminants which covered lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn at a time when most politicians were in a state of denial.”

Deep Involvement in Sept. 11 Health Care

Kathy Kirkland, executive director of the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, also remembered Clinton being deeply and personally involved in the Sept. 11 health care effort.

“She felt very strongly that these people needed not just the assessment, but also the treatment,” Kirkland said. “Seeing her speak at a [2005] meeting, it was like, ‘Wow, she comes across a whole lot better in person.' I got the genuine feeling that she cared about these issues.”

While Clinton wasn't a leader on the Protecting America's Workers Act, Shufro told Bloomberg BNA that she “readily put her name on the legislation when we asked her to do so.”

The bill has never moved out of committee and is still introduced into each new session of Congress.

In 2008, Sen. Clinton demanded that then-OSHA chief Edwin Foulke issue a cranes and derricks rule, responding to a “disturbing pattern of tragic crane accidents across the nation in recent months.” The rule was issued two years later.

“The crane standard was not a sexy topic,” Kirikland said. “It's not going to resonate with Middle America, because how many places have cranes? But this was an issue that was important—to her constituents, anyway.”

Another Ergonomics Rule?

After OSHA's final ergonomics rule was struck down by a Republican Congress in 2001, then-Sen. Clinton joined a group of Congressional Democrats in demanding that the George W. Bush administration re-issue the standard. At the time, Clinton tied the rule to socioeconomic issues, arguing that women are disproportionately hurt by musculoskeletal disorders.

“A number of us remain concerned about the rollback of the ergonomics regulation,” Clinton said in 2001 during John Henshaw's confirmation hearing as OSHA head. She later added that, with the rule having been repealed, “the issue now is, how do we protect workers in the modern workplace.”

A Clinton-led OSHA could try to revive the standard—a key initiative of President Bill Clinton's in the 1990's, suggested Baruch Fellner, an industry attorney with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP.

Seminario shot down that notion, observing that the tool Congress used to repeal the rule, the Congressional Review Act, forbids an agency from re-issuing another regulation that is either the same or “substantially similar.” But some legal scholars have been questioning how restrictive the Congressional Review Act really is, and whether imprecise language in the statute gives OSHA a chance to try again.

“Would she test it in the context of other industries? Why not? The worst you could do is lose,” Fellner told Bloomberg BNA.

Celeste Monforton, a former OSHA policy analyst in President Bill Clinton's administration, said she would lobby a Hillary Clinton-led OSHA for an ergonomics rule specific to poultry processing, and that she would use Clinton's comments in the Senate as artillery.

Some Questions About Commitment

Despite her record of advocacy, others questioned how committed a President Clinton would be to worker safety,

“I'm really not aware that she has focused on OSHA,” Rena Steinzor, a law professor at the University of Maryland and prominent progressive activist, told Bloomberg BNA. “That's not intended as criticism. I just think those issues are dying on the vine. The unions have other things they're worried about.”

In Steinzor's view, most presidents see OSHA as an agency that can create political problems when disasters happen, but offers few political rewards.

“[Clinton] understands government; she's watched it so carefully,” Steinzor said. “I think she would be aware that, with all the health and safety agencies, if something goes wrong, they're going to be front and center, and people are going to blame them, whether or not that's fair. She'll want them to not blow it.”

Monforton agreed, pointing out the difference between what elected officials say in Congress and what they do when they move into the executive branch. As an example, she said Hilda Solis, while a congresswoman from California, called on the George W. Bush administration to better protect workers from silica dust and diacetyl, but when she became Obama's first Labor Secretary, she “wasn't able to or didn't choose to move that issue forward.”

Incremental Approach

More broadly, Monforton said she sees Clinton as a “corporate Democrat” who takes an incremental approach to change.

“They're not going to pursue a lot of things,” Monforton said. “They're going to be very political in thinking about the things they do. I think their regulatory approach is going to be very similar [to Obama's] in terms of centralized control and a lot of power at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.”

Similarly, Aaron Trippler, government affairs director at the American Industrial Hygiene Association, said he had limited expectations of Clinton's presidency.

“She will talk a tough stance, but I don’t think she will push too hard when Congress pushes back,” Trippler told Bloomberg BNA on the topic of expanding OSHA's budget. “She has been pushed a bit more to the left by [Sen. Bernie] Sanders [I-Vt.], and this will cause her to talk more about workers and worker rights. But it is a big jump from talking about this sort of thing to accomplishing anything.”

Much of what OSHA does, if Clinton becomes president, will depend on who Clinton names to lead the agency and the Labor Department, Seminario said. Labor Secretary Tom Perez has often been mentioned as a possible vice president pick, a move that would almost certainly raise the profile of worker safety issues in the White House, given Perez's familiarity with them.

Remarks on the Trail

Clinton has periodically talked about the need to protect workers on the campaign trail.

“Among the 100,000 miners who died in the last century, we’ve lost miners in this century too who are joined with them in sacrifice: the 29 brave men who perished at the Upper Big Branch Mine,” Clinton said at a rally in Athens, Ohio, May 3. “The owner of that mine, Don Blankenship, had neglected workers’ safety for years. And because of weak laws, when he was finally caught, finally charged and finally convicted, he only received a one-year prison sentence. One year, for 29 deaths. That is totally unacceptable. We need to strengthen those laws and hold executives who neglect workers’ health and safety to account.”

Earlier in the campaign, Clinton said that, if elected, she would seek to prosecute individuals and companies when they commit criminal wrongdoing.

“By the way, I heard Mr. Blankenship was outside my event yesterday protesting me,” Clinton continued. “Well, if Donald Trump wants the support of someone like that, he can have it.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com