OSHA Covers Up Workplace Fatalities
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OSHA Covers Up Workplace Fatalities

We Now Know the Chamber of Commerce Is In Charge at OSHA

Jordan Barab

Reproduced from Confined Space, a newsletter of workplace safety and labor issues

Two weeks ago, OSHA gained new political leadership in Deputy Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt. And now we’re seeing the first impact of the Trump-Acosta-Sweatt regime at OSHA: A brazen attempt to hide from the American public the extent of workplace fatalities in this country.  What we now know is that the Chamber of Commerce is fully in charge at OSHA.

Today OSHA removed from its website a running list of workers killed on the job.  That list, which disappeared from OSHA’s homepage today, had been prefaced with the statement: “More than 4,500 workers lose their lives on the job every year. Below are the names of just a few who have died in recent months. OSHA’s mission is to prevent workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths.”  This listing of names was added to the OSHA webpage in 2010 in order to ensure that people knew of the extent of workplace fatalities in the U.S.  Without information like this, fatality statistics are just raw, sterile numbers. The purpose of adding names and circumstances was to impress people with the tragedy that workers and their families face every day.

Instead of the list of workers killed, a different list now appears on OSHA’s Data webpage, listing only those fatalities that have received citations and removing the names of those killed.

Replacing the list of fatalities on the home page is a new feature: “OSHA Working With Employers,” which highlights Training, Compliance Assistance and Cooperative and Recognition Programs. And instead of a running list of workers killed on the job, we now have a running list of  “a few examples of our cooperative programs that work with and recognize employers who create safe workplaces.” (This list will soon get pretty stale. There are a lot more workers killed on the job every month than new VPPSHARP or Alliance participants in an entire year.)

So OSHA has essentially replaced a list of workers killed on the job, mostly due to violations of OSHA standards, with a list of employers who are already allegedly doing the right thing. How this helps high risk, vulnerable employees working in this country’s most dangerous jobs is beyond me.

Video grab from ‘How to File a Complain,’ which has been pulled from the OSHA website.

And just to make sure any pretense of caring about workers is gone from the home page, the new leadership has also removed a video on  “How to File a Complaint” and moved the new list of deaths, along with  a map that listed the high penalty citations by state from the home page to the data page.

Chamber of Commerce flacks, the National Association of Manufacturers and other industry associations have long opposed OSHA Press Releases and any listing of workers killed on the job because they claimed it would falsely imply that employers were to blame. (The alternative being that careless workers must have caused their own deaths.)

OSHA today provided an official written response that attempted to explain the change:

The new fatality data listing is a more accurate reflection of work-related fatalities.  The listings are intended to provide useful information to help our stakeholders better understand how workers are fatally injured on the job so they can prevent further tragedies.

The previous listings included fatal incidents that were outside federal OSHA jurisdiction, not work-related, or the employer was not cited for a violation related to the incident. We are continuing to review all of the data to ensure it is accurate and useful to our stakeholders.

We hope that a greater emphasis on the hazards will help employers and employees better understand how and why these incidents occurred, and take the necessary steps to prevent the loss of life at their own workplace.

How the “new” fatality data is “more accurate” is a mystery.  It’s also not completely clear how the new listing provides “useful information to help our stakeholders better understand how workers are fatally injured on the job.” The only thing the new listing provides is a link to the inspection number which only lists the standards that have been cited. That information is useful, but doesn’t really tell you how the worker was killed. In addition, the names of the workers have been removed, making it more difficult to do independent research on any given case.

Also, the point of the previous list was to describe deaths in the workplace—all deaths in the workplace—not just those under OSHA’s jurisdiction. There are many workplace fatalities not under OSHA’s jurisdiction—public employees in half the states, energy department contractors, some highway deaths, etc.—but the American people should still know the extent of death in the workplace even if OSHA can’t issue a citation.  Where else are they going to find information on fatalities in the workplace—any fatalities in the workplace—if not on OSHA’s website (or Confined Space?)

The eliminated video (see below) told workers that they had the right to speak up and file a complaint, that their name would be held confidential and that it was illegal for the employer to retaliate against them. For some reason, OSHA leadership felt this information needed to be suppressed.

These actions come on top of the elimination of OSHA press releases for all but a few of the most egregious cases. The problem is that most American workers aren’t killed in large disasters or as a result of violations that result in large penalties. Most American workers are killed one at a time, noticed only by their families and friends, and (sometimes) memorialized in a short local news article. Most of the penalties are tiny—a relative few even reaching the threshold that would have generated a press release even during the Obama administration. Press releases, unlike the sterile list now hidden in the data page of OSHA’s website, actually contained information useful to employers and workers about how an incident occurred, how to prevent it and where to look for more information.

The mission and main challenge that OSHA faces is not to make cooperative employers feel better about themselves by highlighting them on the OSHA website. True, compliance assistance and cooperative programs are useful for those employers who already want to do the right thing, or who may learn from those who are already doing the right thing.

OSHA’s main challenge is not how to get good employers to do better; it is how to get the terrible employers—those who deliberately cut corners, and injure, sicken and killed workers—to understand their legal responsibilities, to take them seriously, and feel the full brunt of the law when they fail to protect their workers. Press releases and the list of workers killed in the workplace helped OSHA confront this challenge.

OSHA also faces the challenge of how to educate and encourage workers to participate in the process, get the education and training they need about the hazards they face and, when necessary, to come forward and file a complaint with OSHA. None of the actions taken by OSHA today—or proposals like elimination of the Susan Harwood Training Grants—will address those problems. They will only make them worse.

Note: Despite OSHA’s action, Confined Space will continue to publish the Weekly Toll, a partial list of workplace fatalities that can be found on the web. In addition, USMWF publishes workplace fatalities on their Twitter page.

Featured Photo: Ironworkers erecting the steel frame of a new building at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Photo by Paul Kehler, Flickr.

August 28, 2017