Trump rushes to gut regulations at the expense of worker safety

Workers will die as a result of regulatory rollback, former OSHA chief says.

Workers protest outside the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. The Chamber of Commerce opposed OSHA's rule limiting worker exposure to silica dust. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Workers protest outside the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. The Chamber of Commerce opposed OSHA's rule limiting worker exposure to silica dust. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Nominees to high-level positions in presidential administrations traditionally keep low profiles as they await Senate confirmation. That’s not the case with President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation.

William Wehrum, a longtime industry attorney, has no qualms about representing companies fighting an Obama-era rule that protects workers from exposure to harmful silica dust as he prepares to head an EPA office with a mission to reduce air pollution. And the EPA itself sees no problem with Wehrum arguing against the new Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rule before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. His role in the silica rule court case has nothing to do with his duties at the EPA if confirmed by the Senate, an agency spokesperson told The Hill.

During Tuesday’s oral arguments, Wehrum said his clients oppose OSHA’s decision to lower the silica exposure limit for workers, telling the court: “People are designed to deal with dust. People are in dusty environments all the time and it doesn’t kill them.” The lungs have a mechanism to grab onto silica dust and physiological evidence suggests the lungs of workers can handle the current limit set in 1971, he said.

Wehrum was nominated for the same role at the EPA by President George W. Bush, but was rejected by the Senate. Like many of Trump’s nominees, Wehrum “has an astounding number of conflicts of interest given that he has regularly represented industry in their efforts to undermine clean air standards,” the Sierra Club said in response to his nomination.

The EPA’s support for Wehrum is emblematic of an administration that has shown little regard for workplace safety. Eight months into Trump’s presidency, several occupational health and safety rules — designed to protect workers, a large number of whom supported Trump — have been either delayed or rolled back, and almost always at the behest of industry. Trump, who championed the American worker during his presidential campaign, has cited too much “red tape” as a reason to do away with these regulations.

“What they see as red tape could be the protection that workers needs, that the American public needs to guarantee their health and safety,” Kathleen Rest, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists and former acting director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, told ThinkProgress.

“The Trump administration cares very little about the health of workers.”

The Trump administration’s weakening of workplace rules is coming into conflict with the stated missions of both the EPA and OSHA. Based on changes made in 2016 to the nation’s chemical laws, the EPA now has a mandate to protect workers from harmful chemicals. OSHA has a similar mandate. Since its creation in 1971, OSHA’s core mission has been to ensure a safe and healthy workplace for Americans.

“The Trump administration cares very little about the health of workers,” David Michaels, who served as OSHA administrator for more than seven years in the Obama administration, told ThinkProgress.

Michaels played a key role in getting OSHA, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, to update the silica rule. Exposure to large amounts of silica dust is believed to cause lung cancer, kidney disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

David Michaels, former OSHA administrator. CREDIT: George Washington University
David Michaels, former OSHA administrator. CREDIT: George Washington University

The Trump administration’s rollback of workplace health and safety rules is taking place at the same time that the rate of deaths per 100,000 workers is slowly increasing, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 4,500 workers in the United States die on the job each year.

More than 10 times that number die of work-related diseases such as cancer due to exposure to radiation and chemicals, or debilitating and irreversible illnesses such as silicosis, black lung, and asbestosis. All told, an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 U.S. workers die of occupational diseases each year.

Soon after taking office, Trump issued an executive order requiring agencies to eliminate two rules for every new rule proposed. Less than a year later, the nation could be facing another round of occupational safety rule rollbacks: Trump is scheduled to deliver a speech on Monday about additional efforts to cut regulations, the Washington Times reported last week.

After the president’s speech, the administration will hold 10 sessions at various federal agencies focusing on the regulatory environment and encouraging more input on “what regulations are working and what regulations aren’t working,” according to the report.

“What we’ve seen so far could be the tip of the iceberg,” Rest said of the Trump administration’s year-to-date worker protection rule delays and rollbacks.

Richard Denison, lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund and a chemical safety expert, is waging a campaign to get the EPA to fulfill its mission and protect Americans from toxic chemicals.

In 2016, Congress overhauled the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) — the nation’s primary chemicals management law — for the first time in 40 years, requiring the EPA to conduct comprehensive risk evaluations of chemicals without regard to cost, and with special attention to the risks posed to vulnerable populations. In its implementation of the law, however, the Trump EPA issued dramatically weakened rules governing how the agency assesses the safety of a chemical.

“It really does come down to a trade-off between private interests and worker safety.”

Critics contend the lax implementation of the law represents an effort to cater to the chemical industry at the expense of public health. One of the key EPA officials charged with overseeing the drafting of the updated rules was Nancy Beck, a former high-level official at the American Chemistry Council, the leading chemical industry trade association. Beck now serves as the EPA’s deputy assistant administrator in the agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

The chemical industry has slowed down the implementation of worker protection rules by arguing that there is uncertainty surrounding the science of chemical safety, Denison explained. “That’s because every delay means they don’t have to implement new restrictions or new controls that typically cost them money. It really does come down to a trade-off between private interests and worker safety,” he said.

Denison also is speaking out against Michael Dourson’s nomination to head the EPA’s chemical safety division. If confirmed by the Senate, Dourson will oversee the part of the agency that implements TSCA and the part that reviews and regulates pesticides, including the risks of those pesticides to farm workers.

Dourson worked for the EPA as a staff scientist but took his career in very different direction, according to Denison; since leaving the agency in 1994, he has worked to “undermine health protections from chemicals in the pay of the companies that make or use those chemicals,” Denison said. The consulting firm Dourson founded in 1995 has been paid by chemical companies for research and reports that frequently downplay the health risks posed by their compounds.

“Workers have every reason to be concerned about his nomination because he would be in charge of assessing chemicals, many of which are used in workplaces. And his track record suggests that he would be likely to support less health-protective standards than we think the head of this office at EPA should be doing,” Denison said.

In addition to weakening TSCA and postponing implementation of the silica rule, the administration has taken several other steps to chip away at workplace safety provisions. The EPA delayed the effective date for its revised Certification and Training of Pesticide Applicators until May 2018. The updates to the rule would provide greater protection to workers who apply toxic chemicals to farm crops. The agency also proposed extending the compliance deadlines under its final rule for formaldehyde emission standards for composite wood products. The new standards, issued a year ago, were intended to protect workers from harmful exposure to the chemical.

The Trump administration proposed a 40 percent cut in the budget of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health the nation’s primary federal agency conducting research and making recommendations for preventing work-related illness and injury. It is also the only federal agency that supports education and training of workplace health and safety professionals.

In January, the Obama administration issued a rule that reduced permissible exposure to beryllium from 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 0.2 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour period. OSHA, under the Trump administration, proposed keeping beryllium exposure limits at the previous level for workers in the shipyard and construction industries. OSHA also halted an Obama-era rule requiring employers to submit workplace injury and illness data for posting online.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) proposed a three-month delay in the effective date of a rule designed to improve miners’ safety and health. The rule required certain mine operators to conduct workplace inspections to identify hazards before work begins in an area, notify miners of hazardous conditions that are not corrected, and record the work sites examined, the adverse conditions found, and the date of each corrective action taken. Under Trump, MSHA is facing a $3 million cut to its budget on top of a previous $8 million cut. This budget decrease will reduce the number of safety inspection in U.S. coal mines by nearly 25 percent.

The EPA and OSHA sometimes have overlapping authority. For example, the EPA might link a chemical spill back to a business and determine that workers there are being exposed to a hazard from the same chemical. In another example, an OSHA complaint about misuse of chemicals in the workplace may show improper disposal procedures that endanger the public. A 1991 agreement between the agencies allows for joint inspections, and it calls on one agency to let the other know when an investigation finds evidence of violations in the other agency’s purview.

“Workers will die as a result of that.”

One of the most important regulations the Trump administration hopes to weaken is the beryllium rule. Experts have known for decades that exposure at even very low doses to beryllium — which is used to make computers and aircraft parts — can pose serious health risks when it is crushed to dust and enters the air.

“We did the best we could. We issued several new standards, with the beryllium rule being one of them,” said Michaels, who now serves as a professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University. “If the beryllium standard is weakened by the Trump administration, workers will be exposed to a toxic chemical. It’s unfortunate because workers will die as a result of that.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in a July report, titled “Sidelining Science Since Day One,” that the Trump administration has delayed many science-based rules intended to “safeguard workers from harmful toxins, with little to support halts except for letters and petitions from companies or industry trade associations.”

A cross memorializes a victim of a 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.  The explosion killed 15 people, including 12 volunteer firefighters. CREDIT: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
A cross memorializes a victim of a 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. The explosion killed 15 people, including 12 volunteer firefighters. CREDIT: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt delayed an Obama-era rule that would have tightened safety requirements for companies that store large quantities of dangerous chemicals, such as those stored at the Arkema Inc. chemical plant near Houston that was damaged by Hurricane Harvey and exploded, injuring several first responders. The EPA rule — the Risk Management Plan (RMP) amendments — would have required chemical plants to make public the types and quantities of chemicals stored onsite. The rule was developed after a fertilizer plant in Texas exploded in 2013, killing 15 people.

Mathy Stanislaus, a former EPA assistant administrator who helped draft the rule for the Obama administration, told the Associated Press that the rule, if it had not been delayed, could have greatly reduced the risk to police officers and paramedics who responded to the explosion at the Arkema plant.

The Harris County sheriff’s office said 15 deputies sought medical attention for eye irritation after the fire at the Arkema plant. Earlier this month, seven first responders filed a lawsuit against Arkema. The suit alleges that the plant owner’s negligence caused the responders “severe bodily injuries.”

The amended Risk Management Plan would have made facilities safer for surrounding communities, reduced the risk of explosions, leaks, and other chemical accidents, and helped ensure that first responders were well informed and protected, the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in its report, released more than a month before Hurricane Harvey damaged the Arkema chemical plant.

“The science behind worker protection is taking a backseat to politics and private interests. All of this is at the expense of public health and worker health,” Rest said.