Workplace safety watchdog OSHA has long been the federal agency that businesspeople have loved to gripe about, especially in the construction business.
But love it or hate it, it’s hard to argue that the inspectors of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration don’t play a vital role at a time when thousands of people still die every year across the country in workplace accidents, more than a few of them on construction job sites.
The Boston drain company at the center of the tragic trench collapse last year in the Back Bay in which two workers drowned had been in OSHA’s crosshairs for some time, to name one example. Dozens of people die on the job each year in Massachusetts.
But while some in the business community might wish for a less adversarial approach at times, except for a few diehard OSHA haters, there’s little support for a radical Trumpian razing of the agency.
It’s too early to tell whether President Donald Trump will change OSHA from watchdog to lap dog, or worse yet, simply put it to sleep by slashing its budget and powers. But it doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see the potential for extreme change at OSHA under the new Trump Administration.
In one clear break with the past practices of presidential administrations on both sides of the political aisle, OSHA has suddenly gone silent when it comes to the media.
The safety watchdog during the Obama years sent out as many as a dozen press releases a week, often featuring announcements of fines against companies for
safety violations, including cases where workers had been seriously injured or killed. But no new press releases have gone out from OSHA since Jan. 19, the day Trump was inaugurated.
Press releases may not sound like a big deal, but OSHA has long seen its media bully pulpit as one of its most effective enforcement tools. Simply put, companies don’t like being lambasted by OSHA in the media. It’s not exactly a brand-building exercise.
“They (OSHA) see the press releases as being more impactful than the final outcome of these cases,” said Eric Conn, a Washington, D.C. attorney who has defended companies against OSHA charges. “Employers are very afraid of being blasted by OSHA in the media.”
Nothing Is Normal
Our new president’s rambling comments over the past several weeks and months also offer a window into what may be in store for OSHA. Trump has talked openly of cutting out 75 percent of all federal regulations. It’s hard to imagine Trump, based on his character, falling into the mode of previous administrations.
Democrats have tended to support a tougher line at OSHA when it comes to workplace accidents, with the Obama Administration in particular supporting aggressive use of the media to get the word out.
The Bush Administration and other Republican administrations over the decades have opted for a less aggressive approach when it comes to “shaming” construction firms and other companies with long records of safety offenses, but still announced significant fines and other enforcement actions.
All that sounds highly un-Trumpian.
“In a traditional Republican administration, we can pretty much predict what is going to happen,” said Celeste Monforton, a professional lecturer at the
George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. “But with this one, who knows, it’s all up in the air.”
Still, if Trump truly wants to flat-line OSHA, he has the tools at his disposal to do the deed. There is nothing in the founding statute of the agency that requires it to do inspections. Trump could also slash OSHA’s budget and let the agency wither for lack of funding.
But while our new president has a thing for radical change, gutting the agency is not necessarily likely to curry favor among sensible members of the business community.
Reasonable people can disagree over the agency’s tactics. But OSHA essentially acts as a beat cop, deterring and punishing bad actors and bottom feeders that don’t have a problem cutting corners when it comes to the safety of their employees if they can save a few bucks.
David Begelfer, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, which represents developers across the state, summed up this sentiment when I caught up with him last week.
“We have a lot of companies, engineering companies, development companies that do the right thing,” Begelfer said. “They don’t want to see competitors cut corners on safety and other issues and save money that way. That undercuts the people doing the right thing.”
Unchecked, in a competitive industry like construction, such corner cutters can outbid other more responsible companies, who spend the money necessary to operate safely.
OSHA may not be perfect. But it is far better than the alternative of no safety watchdog at all.