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By Stephen Lee
Dec. 6 — President-elect Donald Trump won’t tinker with federal workplace safety rules because he understands their value to business, a top Labor Department official predicts.
“I think the Trump administration will want to do the right thing,” David Michaels, outgoing head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, told Bloomberg BNA.
That optimism isn’t broadly shared by other safety advocates or business representatives, most of whom expect Trump to aggressively cut back on OSHA enforcement, freeze rulemaking and even try to claw back old rules.
But employers—including Trump himself, a builder and developer—know that dangerous workplaces are less profitable and don’t get the best performance out of their people, Michaels said.
Indeed, employers even “beg” OSHA to update its standards, Michaels said, because they’re badly out of date and refer to equipment that isn’t manufactured anymore.
Lawrence Halprin, an industry-side attorney with Keller and Heckman LLP in Washington questioned that claim. Manufacturers have asked OSHA for a more stringent beryllium standard, he said, but he couldn’t think of another instance when employers have asked OSHA to regulate more.
Michaels also said he expects Trump to leave OSHA alone because many of the agency’s initiatives have taken on lives of their own, meaning Trump couldn’t rescind them even if he wanted to.
For example, Michaels pointed to OSHA’s efforts to crack down on temporary workers who are sent on assignments without any safety training and are killed on their first day on the job. Since launching a program to combat that trend, the American Staffing Association and National Safety Council have, on their own, teamed up to certify competent staffing agencies that ensure worker safety.
“That activity now is going to go on, even if OSHA stepped away,” Michaels said. “Because we launched our initiative, that triggered a whole series of activities that will continue no matter what.”
Michaels further expressed confidence that the Trump team will protect worker safety simply because it’s the right thing to do.
“I don’t think any administration would come into this building without the commitment to making sure that every worker is able to go home safely at the end of every day,” Michaels said. “If you can find me someone who doesn’t believe that, I’d like to meet them.”
Others in the labor community have been far less sanguine.
“There’s no question that there’s going to be a whole series of assaults on protections, including health and safety, and a whole series of attacks on government agencies and their budgets, including the Department of Labor,” Peg Seminario, safety and health director at the AFL-CIO, told Bloomberg BNA.
Trump appointees may also consider that compliance with OSHA rules could be in an employer’s favor in the event of litigation about possible worker injuries.
OSHA has already met with Trump’s transition team, according to Michaels. He described the meetings as somewhat perfunctory information exchanges, during which OSHA has notified the Trump people about its ongoing activities.
Michaels is already the longest-serving OSHA administrator ever, having served for seven years.
When asked to name his greatest achievement in office, Michaels pointed to “stronger and broader” engagement between OSHA and employers.
Examples include better press releases, new rules that require employers to notify the agency about severe injuries, and efforts to raise the public profile of OSHA’s regional staff, so employers in the area get to know them, Michaels said.
“With all of those things, the idea is to bring more employers into contact with OSHA in ways that will encourage them to do the right thing,” he said.
Conversely, Michaels said his greatest frustration has been his inability to change OSHA’s out-of-date permissible exposure limits for chemicals. The agency’s rulemaking process is so burdensome that it must spend many years and millions of dollars just to issue a single standard for a single chemical.
Michaels also said he was disappointed that OSHA wasn’t able to finalize an injury and illness prevention program rule, which would have required employers to more effectively find and fix hazards in their workplaces. At the outset of his tenure, the so-called I2P2 rule ranked as the agency’s top regulatory priority.
“We put our resources into the silica rule, and we proudly got out a rule that will protect many workers,” Michaels said.
In January, Michaels will return to the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, where he served as a professor before taking the OSHA leadership position.
He said he plans to stay involved as a worker safety advocate by writing, speaking and helping individual employers that want to improve their safety practices.
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