Shutting Down Worker Protections
I worked through two shutdowns at the Department of Labor (DoL). It was my job to work with our lawyers to determine which agency activities were permitted under law and which were not. There are several exceptions that permit some government activities during a shutdown. The primary exception is for agencies to continue activities that protect life and property.
While there is some room for interpretation on what that means, when I was at the Labor Department it was clear that rulemaking, even on important health regulations like the rule we were writing to protect coal miners from black lung, didn’t fall into that category. No one in our agency that engaged in rulemaking was permitted to work.
Of course, we know by now that those rules don’t apply in this Administration. Activities that would hurt this Administration politically if stopped have been continued.
Yesterday, in a handout to corporate interests, it issued a final rule rolling back much of the Obama-era OSHA rule requiring electronic reporting of workplace injuries. While DoL is currently funded, the agency that conducts the final review and approval of the rule, the Office of Management and Budget, is not. OMB acted illegally when it reviewed and approved this rule.
Citing “privacy concerns,” the Administration stripped away the requirement that employers electronically submit both their injury logs and injury reports in a format that would be made public. The changes limit the rule to requiring employers only report annual totals of hours worked, number of injuries and illnesses, and total of lost or restricted work days.
I’ve written about this rule a few times. I worked in a data-rich agency, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, where most serious injuries are reported within days, and extensive data on all injuries is reported quarterly. I have seen how injury data combined with enforcement data is used to help identify both problem employers and dangerous industry-wide trends, and how making basic information public drives private investment in safety improvements.
Oh, and there were no issues with data privacy. OSHA, MSHA’s sister agency, is a data-poor agency. Absurdly, one of the Administration’s justifications for cutting back the rule was that if OSHA had better data and it was public, employers could predict OSHA’s enforcement patterns. The Administration prefers the status quo, where only employers see injury trends and OSHA operates with blinders.
It angers and saddens me to see federal workers suffering the painful consequences of this shutdown. In my experience, most public servants who are called to work without pay do so willingly and with a sense of duty. It is bad enough to use these workers as conscripted labor. It is unconscionable to then direct them to break the law in order to make workers less safe.