The White House Rolled Back This Workplace Safety Rule During the Shutdown

During the government shutdown, the news focused on the 800,000 furloughed workers who went without pay for over a month — and justifiably so. But in the background, another group of workers suffered.
By: | January 30, 2019

Dominating the news since December 22, 2018, has been the United States government shutdown, which officially ended (at least temporarily) on Jan. 25. At the forefront were talks of border wall budgets and a planned State of the Union address. The 800,000 furloughed workers who went without pay for over a month were the top news items — justifiably so. But in the background, another group of workers suffered.

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What Happened: On Jan. 25, a 2016 rule requiring employers to submit detailed reports of all workplace injuries to the Department of Labor was gutted. A regulation review process that should have taken three months was pushed through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in just six weeks by the Trump administration.

The OMB “serves the President of the United States in overseeing the implementation of his vision across the Executive Branch. Specifically, [it]’s mission is to assist the President in meeting his policy, budget, management and regulatory objectives and to fulfill the agency’s statutory responsibilities.”

This office was both closed during the shutdown and had nearly two-thirds of its employees placed on furlough, yet it still was able to roll back the rule.

Immediate Backlash: Public health researchers were not idly waiting; when things were finalized and published, nonprofit Public Citizen immediately filed a lawsuit to block the changes. Two other public health groups joined Public Citizen.

In the suit, they accused the OMB of “ramming through the controversial changes as a favor to big business groups, who oppose the rule,” reported Vox.

What the Rule Actually Mandated: The Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses Rule was enacted to monitor and track data on workplace injuries. The goal was to help inspectors identify dangerous work conditions while encouraging businesses to comply more fully with workplace safety laws.

Read More on the Aftermath of the Shutdown: After the Government Shutdown, U.S. Employers Are Facing This ‘Unprecedented Risk’ by Les Williams, partner and CRO,  Risk Cooperative

Employers were required to submit an electronic report with detailed information on each workplace injury occurrence in the hopes to collect more complete data on how workplace injuries occur. From there, labor leaders could work to put in place regulations exemplifying best practices for workplace safety.

In 2017, the Trump administration placed the electronic reporting on hold. In the summer of 2018, the administration amended the rule to only require employers to submit a summary report, removing the detailed injury recording from the final draft.

Researchers Say It’s Not Enough Data: Public health researchers rely on OSHA workplace inspections and a workplace safety survey of employers to devise the best occupational health and safety programs. But these methods have their limitations.

First, OSHA does not inspect every single job site every single year, limiting researchers’ access to data on different types of jobs. Second, the survey sent to employers only covers a sampling of businesses in what are considered “hazardous industries,” which also limits the researchers’ reach.

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To put it into perspective, restaurants and hotels are some potential areas where researchers cannot gain accurate worker injury data. With this type of information off the table, researchers said, government inspectors, labor groups and health care researchers struggle to identify workplaces with dangerous working conditions.

On the opposite side, however, OSHA decided to repeal the requirement to report detailed injury data for an entirely different reason: to protect workers’ privacy: “The agency said in its final rule … that the change would prevent ‘routine government collection of information that may be quite sensitive, including descriptions of workers’ injuries and the body parts affected, and thereby avoiding the risk that such information might be publicly disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).’ ”

But, labor unions have reported, few workers are actually concerned about privacy risk.

Learn More: Vox looked further into this issue, with an extensive list of sources and a detailed look at how labor groups have responded to the rule. &

Autumn Heisler is the digital producer at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]