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It may not get the worldwide coverage of Trump’s comments on North Korea or American Football players, but changes to health and safety regulations could be one of his lasting legacies. James Evison reports.
On January 30, 2017, as part of Donald Trump’s quick fire collection of policy announcements after being sworn in as President of the United States of America, an executive order was signed to cut ‘red tape’.
It signalled the beginning of a war on health and safety – and potentially the legacy of safety management philosophies under previous administrations in the USA.
(Image: The Grenfell Tower fire ablaze. UK safety experts have called for the deregulatory environment to change)
Trump’s concept and election pledge follows the ‘two-out-one-in’ rule change. It is partly a legacy of his perception of Obama and previous administrations desire to create a burden on businesses.
His campaign promise has been a speedy process, with a view to looking at driving economic growth by removing ‘regulatory burdens’ as soon as possible.
To date, a moratorium on new regulations has been made, more than 800 regulations have been kicked into the long grass or scrapped, and more than $300m have been saved as a result, the administration has claimed.
A guidance note accompanying the executive order, published a few days after Trump signed it, also explained it would only be applied on regulations that would cost in excess of $100m to implement.
In the UK, a similar policy has been presented in the past. Firstly, the coalition government of 2010-2015 created a similar ‘one-in-two-out’ agenda. But it then went even further, reverting to a ‘three-out-one-in’ policy. But the whole agenda has been put on ice following the Grenfell Tower disaster last summer, and concerns that the ‘cutting red tape’ agenda may have gone too far.
The direct link between Trump’s talk (and his large ‘red tape’ flowchart, see video above) and direct action on health and safety regulations can be found in the updated agenda from the Department of Labor’s agency, The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
The agency’s list of the statuses for regulations was published in late July, details 14 regulations at three stages – pre-rule, proposed rule, and final rule. The autumn 2016 agenda, for direct comparison, included 30 regulations.
When drilling down even further, the figures become even starker. Some 469 federal regulations have been withdrawn and a further 391 have been either repositioned as ‘long-term’ or reclassified as ‘inactive’ to allow for what it describes as ‘careful’ reviewing of the regulation.
The comment provided by the agency along with the list speaks of ‘reducing unnecessary regulatory burden on the American people’ and ‘promoting economic growth and innovation, and ‘protecting individual liberty’.
Examples of topics removed from the regulatory agenda include:
Preventing backover injuries and fatalities
Noise in construction
Occupational exposure to styrene
Updating requirements for the selection, fit testing and use of hearing protection devices
Now listed under “long-term” actions included issues around:
Cranes and derricks
Process safety management and prevention of major chemical accidents
Shipyard fall protection
Emergency response and preparedness
Prevention of workplace violence in health care and social assistance
Occupational injury and illness recording and reporting requirements – musculoskeletal disorders
One such rule being potentially removed, to save the shipbuilding and construction sectors around $11bn, the administration claim, is protecting workers from beryllium – an industrial metal and know carcinogen.
The move, which originally saw the final rule put into effect on May 20, would have meant training and monitoring workers to stop dangerous levels of exposure to beryllium.
Trade bodies have claimed there was ‘no evidence’ of beryllium having an impact. But the same Labour department which under Obama had said it posed ‘a significant risk’, now claims there is uncertainty. OSHA stated it would not be enforcing the rule, and instead sought comments on a new proposal, which closed at the end of August.
The problem with creating the evidence base for berryllium is testing lung diseases. Like many other health issues in America, it requires expensive testing, which doesn’t happen as a matter of course in the USA with its private health insurance system.
This makes it hard to prove exposure levels for workers. But senior managers and numerous safety organisations have claimed that the reason for employees suffering lung disease is a direct result of beryllium.
And contrary to some opinions, the facts are there about its impact. It is a verified occupational health disease, which has its own Wikipedia page and numerous academic studies.
Following Trump’s executive order in January, the Natural Resources Defense Council, watchdog Public Citizen, and trade union the Communications Workers of America, filed a lawsuit, claiming the order harmed ‘countless Americans’ and the administration was directly asking agencies to ‘engage in unlawful actions’.
Their voice is not the only one offering concern.
Christine Owens, the executive director of the Employment Law Project, said: “In his first speech as President of the United States, Donald Trump pledged that every decision he made would be to benefit the nation’s workers.
According to Owens, the administration’s regulatory agenda reflected ‘yet again just how hollow the president’s promise has been’.
Recent comments from the administration
Only this week, vice president of the USA, Mike Pence (pictured, left), gave a speech in which he detailed the ‘success’ of the administration’s approach to health and safety. The comments were due to be made by Donald Trump, but this was changed at the last minute due to the Las Vegas shooting massacre.
Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the Centre for Science and Democracy at the UCS, made a lengthy comment on Pence’s speech, detailing what he sees as the impact of the deregulatory environment:
“This administration has swept away protections that took years to develop. These critical safeguards were created based on the best available science and public input, but now they’re being quickly and carelessly deleted. They’ve ignored the evidence and put the interests of industry lobbyists over public health and safety. These changes will put Americans at risk, yet the president and vice president see this as an opportunity to take a victory lap.
The rush to undo these rules has real, damaging consequences. Communities near chemical facilities will have less information about the risks they face—raising the danger to families and first responders in the case of accidents like the recent Arkema explosion in Houston.
The pesticide chlorpyrifos will stay on the market despite evidence that it sickens farmworkers and harms brain development in children exposed to it. Workers will be more likely to get serious illnesses from exposure to silica dust and beryllium on the job. Parents will have less information about how much added sugar is in the food they buy for their families.
Without limits on pollutants like ozone, methane, carbon dioxide, heavy metals and mining waste, our air and our water will be dirtier and it will be much harder for us to manage the risks of climate change. And today Vice President Pence promised to go even further in dismantling these safeguards.
“The vice president may tout it as an accomplishment that the administration has derailed so many public health and safety protections. For the rest of us, though—particularly for low-income neighborhoods and communities of color—this is no victory. It’s a willful failure by the administration to do its job protecting Americans.”
Further Trump orders
The original executive order in January has not been the only document Trump has signed that directly impacts health and safety.
He has also put pen to a Congressional Review Act resolution in the spring, which stopped a regulation – originally published in December 2016 – that would have allowed the OSHA to act on inadequate recordkeeping on injuries and illnesses for 5.5 years rather than the current 6 month enforcement period.
Plans were put in place immediately afterwards by Congress to restore the regulation – known as the ‘Volks’ rule – but the act remains in committee.
One of the only late-era Obama regulations to remain is the walking-working surfaces and personal fall protection systems rule, originally issued in November 2016 and which came into effect this January. The remaining elements will come into force by the end of 2017.
Also by the end of the year we will see how far the two-for-one rule will play out across the regulatory landscape of America. Trump will publish what action each agency will take on regulations, and what deregulatory activity will occur, in November.