Trump rushes to gut regulations at the expense of worker safety

by | Sep 28, 2017 | Work Related Injuries | 0 comments

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…