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Ferguson: OSHA Under President Trump: Early Signs

By Julie Ferguson

Thursday, January 26, 2017 | 1597 | 0 | 0 min read

We’re still awaiting an appointment to the Department of Labor under the Trump administration, so we don’t expect an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) director to be named until after that.

Julie Ferguson

Julie Ferguson

Right now, a hearing for the controversial Andrew Puzder as secretary of labor is scheduled for Feb. 2. Part of the controversy related to the fast-food CEO revolves around numerous civil rights suits that his company has logged.

In the National Safety Council’s Safety Health, Tom Musick reports that legal experts are predicting significant changes for worker safety regulation under the new administration, in his article "OSHA under Trump: A closer look."

Here’s a summary of the article’s key points:

  • Labor law experts predict that OSHA will move away from an enforcement-based strategy toward compliance assistance and cooperative programs for employers.
  • OSHA’s funding could decrease, and the way it spends its funds also could change if Trump limits the agency’s enforcement budget.
  • Recent regulations such as the injury and illness record-keeping rule, the silica rule and the so-called “blacklisting rule” all could be in jeopardy under the Trump administration.

For another take at the crystal ball, Russell Carr has issued two in three-part series of articles on potential changes at EHS Today. Carr comes from the perspective of an owner of an environmental, health and safety consulting business. The first two articles are here and here.

In looking at changes that may be in store for OSHA and other regulatory agencies, it’s instructive to look at the broader context of some steps that have been taken early in the new administration.

Hiring freeze

On his first day in office, President Trump issued a hiring freeze on non-military federal employees and, at least for some departments, on grants and contracts.

“President Donald Trump’s hiring freeze will last only as long as it takes his administration to come up with an alternative attrition plan, according to a memorandum released by the White House Monday, and could provide broad exemptions for agency leaders.

"Trump said his hiring moratorium would 'be applied across the board in the executive branch' and apply to any positions vacant as of Jan. 22. It would bar agencies from creating new positions. Agency heads can exempt positions they deem 'necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities.'”

The hiring freeze is expected to be a precursor to federal job cuts of as much as 20% in some departments, and was issued to counter “the dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years.” An article at Government Executive points out that there has been no federal workforce expansion and that “employment by the federal government as share of all U.S. employment is relatively low compared to most of the last 70 years.”

Opponents to the freeze point to several potential unintended consequences.

Unions and veterans groups say the federal hiring freeze would make the government less efficient, and make it harder for military personnel to find jobs when they leave the service. (About a third of all federal hires are military veterans, although if they’re working security positions, for example, they may not be affected).

The freeze could also take off the table thousands of well-paying jobs for U.S. citizens with higher education and specific skills.

Federal employees have other reasons to feel pressure, among them the recent reinstatement of the obscure Holman Rule, which House Republicans revived and allows them to slash the pay of individual federal workers to $1.

The Holman Rule, named after an Indiana congressman who devised it in 1876, empowers any member of Congress to propose amending an appropriations bill to single out a government employee or cut a specific program.

The use of the rule would not be simple; a majority of the House and the Senate would still have to approve any such amendment. At the same time, opponents and supporters agree that the work of 2.1 million civil servants, designed to be insulated from politics, is now vulnerable to the whims of elected officials.

Information lockdown: temporary or a sign of things to come?

There’s always a level of anxiety in the federal workforce when a new administration takes the reins, but one other issue has been causing a level of discomfort among employees. Numerous news reports reveal an information crackdown on staff in various federal agencies, from the the Environmental Protection Agency to Departments of Agriculture, Health & Human Services, and the Interior. In its article Trump clamps down on federal agencies, The Hill reports:

It’s not unusual for incoming administrations to seek control over agency communications, especially at the outset, when Cabinet secretaries aren’t in place.

But experts on the federal workforce say they have never seen a White House take the type of steps Trump’s administration has to curb public communications.

Restrictions are reported to include press releases, photos, tweets, speaking engagements, fact sheets, news feeds and more. See a related story at Politico: Information lockdown hits Trump’s federal agencies.

Hopefully, this will be short-term in nature, but one that we will be watching. By early indicators, it doesn’t seem as though an open “sunlight” approach to communications will be a core value of this administration. If we were putting money on it, we’d bet that it’s just a matter of time until OSHA’s record-keeping rule is toast, particularly in light of pending lawsuits challenging the rule, and Trump’s recent promise to roll back regulations by somewhere on the order of 70% to 80%.

Julie Ferguson is a marketing consultant for Lynch Ryan & Associates, a Massachusetts-based employer consulting firm. This column was reprinted with permission from the firm's Workers' Comp Insider blog.

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