Labor Nominee Acosta Cautious About OSHA Enforcement Cuts

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By Bruce Rolfsen

Labor secretary nominee Alexander Acosta told senators during his March 22 Senate confirmation hearing that he’s concerned about further cuts to OSHA’s inspection staff.

However, he was noncommittal on whether he would delay or revise the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s silica rule.

Acosta, now dean of Florida International University’s law school and a former U.S. attorney for the southern district of Florida, told senators, “I will work to enforce the laws under the department’s jurisdiction fully and fairly.”

Republican lawmakers focused on OSHA efforts to cooperate with employers, such as the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) in which companies are encouraged to have better-than-average injury and illness rates in exchange for OSHA limiting inspections.

Acosta told senators he’s willing to consider alternative programs. “I believe it is important to look outside the box,” Acosta said.

Democrats Dubious

Democratic members of the Senate Committee for Health, Education, Labor and Pensions pressed Acosta about how OSHA enforcement and rules drafted by the Obama administration would fare under his watch.

The Trump administration budget proposal to cut Department of Labor spending in fiscal year 2018 by 21 percent to $9.2 billion concerned Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.). Hassan questioned Acosta about how potential Labor Department reductions would affect OSHA enforcement.

Seven inspectors cover New Hampshire, and It would take the inspectors 122 years to inspect the state’s 50,000 worksites, Hassan said.

Nationwide, according to OSHA, the agency has about 815 inspectors, down from 1,108 in 2013.

Hassan asked Acosta if he would maintain OSHA’s enforcement budget “at no less than current levels.”

“Something is going to have to give somewhere in the budget,” Acosta said.

However, Acosta said he would be concerned about situations where cuts endangered enforcement effectiveness.

“My background is a law enforcement background,” Acosta said. “I think that worker safety is incredibly important.”

He added, “I would be concerned if the number of inspectors in any one point fell to the point they couldn’t do their job.”

Silica Future

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was the first lawmaker to raise the issue of enforcing OSHA’s silica rule (RIN:1218-AB70), which was issued a year ago.

The compliance deadline for construction companies to reduce workers’ exposure to breathable silica dust is June 23. Manufacturers and most other general industry employers have an additional year to comply.

“The test is, will you stand up for 150 million American workers, and that starts by making sure workers are safe on their jobs,” Warren told Acosta.

She asked Acosta if he would promise not to weaken or delay compliance with the silica rule. Acosta replied that President Donald Trump has directed each department to review its rules.

“Based on that executive action, I cannot make a commitment because the Department of Labor has been ordered to review all rules,” the nominee said.

Warren asked whether that review could lead to silica rule changes. Acosta answered, “High on the list of priorities will be to protect workers with appropriate rules.”

Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) asked Acosta if OSHA would enforce the rule while the review is ongoing.

“To the extent it is in effect” and hasn’t been stayed, Acosta said.

Several construction and manufacturing groups are challenging the rule in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Final briefs are due March 23.About 2.3 million workers are exposed to silica in workplaces and of those, about 940,000 are exposed to silica levels exceeding the new standard, according to OSHA. The agency said the rule will prevent 642 deaths a year and 918 moderate-to-severe silicosis cases.

Immigrant Workers, More Questions

Acosta, whose parents are Cuban refugees, said in a discussion with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) that immigrant workers face challenges that native-born workers don’t.

“When workers aren’t part of a system, the system can abuse them,” Acosta said.

The committee’s review of Acosta continues with senators asking Acosta to respond to written questions.

Warren’s letter asks Acosta about his plans for enforcing OSHA’s beryllium rule (RIN:1218-AB76); what types of inspections would have the highest priority; and whether he supports the administration proposal to end the Susan Harwood Training Grant Program, saving about $10.5 million annually. The program provides training and education for workers and employers on recognizing and preventing safety and health hazards.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at BRolfsen@bna.com

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

For More Information

Video of the hearing is available at http://src.bna.com/nfu

Warren's letter to Acosta is available at http://src.bna.com/nfr

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