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EHS OutLoud Blog

The Trump Administration's Anti-Regulation Rhetoric Is Putting American Workers and the Environment at Risk

As is well known by now, one of President Donald Trump’s major campaign platforms was his promise to eliminate regulations that “bloat government and kill jobs.” It still remains to be seen how he intends to act on this promise, and how this might impact environmental, health and safety regulations, but his appointees to run the EPA, Scott Pruitt, and original appointee to run the DOL (OSHA), Andrew Puzder, are worrying signs due to their anti-regulation records. (See related blog post, “The New Appointees: What Donald Trump’s Choices for his Cabinet Say to Me.”)

Trump since has appointed Alexander Acosta to run DOL, after Puzder bowed out under pressure, but Acosta’s record on regulation is less clear. Adding to the concerns were last week’s dramatic proposed budget cuts to the EPA, which apparently will negatively impact a wide range of water and air quality regulations, among others.

Regardless of the final “anti-regulation” policies undertaken by the Trump administration, there’s another emerging concern: that the administration’s anti-regulation rhetoric could create a “perception problem” among leadership and management of U.S. businesses that potentially could lead to significant risk for worker health and safety and the environment. This especially is worrying for those businesses operating in high-hazard industries such as manufacturing, construction, energy and industrial services.  

The Trump administration has a responsibility to manage their messaging and ensure that vital environmental, health and safety regulations remain intact or risk a loss of focus and commitment to these issues. If that happens, it almost certainly would lead to unnecessary loss of life and injuries for American workers and damage to the environment and local communities. (See related blog post, “Will The Trump Administration's Regulatory Reform Agenda Include Rollback of EHS Regulations?”)

Why is this perception component so criticial? It’s a well-established fact that management commitment is the key underlying factor in determining the success – or failure – of any environmental, health and safety compliance program. Without this top-down commitment from senior leadership, EHS compliance effectively is doomed to failure. 

Without going into great detail on this subject, it essentially boils down to the fact that EHS compliance is costly and inconvenient for business. Money must be spent on EHS compliance resources (consulting/expertise, training, equipment, testing, engineering and the list goes on), and time and resources must be spent towards implementation and ongoing management efforts. If senior leadership and management don’t accept and understand this reality and do not consistently support compliance efforts despite these barriers, then again, it’s all doomed to failure. 

If senior leadership of impacted U.S. businesses take the Trump administration’s anti-regulation rhetoric to heart and believe that EHS regulations no longer apply, this could create unnecessary risk. This perception problem seriously could undermine the management commitment component that’s so vital to the success of EHS compliance, which ultimately protects worker safety, the environment and local communities.

Impact on Small Businesses

This perception threat becomes even more worrying for small businesses, which make up the vast majority of our economy. 

Big companies typically realize the overall value proposition associated with EHS compliance. For example, they recognize the well-established link between things like quality performance and safety performance (i.e. if you want to improve quality, then start by improving safety), and that U.S. companies lose an estimated $1.4 billion each year to all direct and indirect costs associated with workplace injuries and fatalities.  Those losses include not only regulatory fines and penalties, but civil and even criminal liabilities, legal fees, lost production, retraining of lost employees, reputational and PR damage and increased insurance premiums. 

Small companies aren’t nearly as evolved and resourced as their larger counterparts, and more often than not, are so consumed with surviving from one payroll to the next, that they rarely have the opportunity to address these EHS issue. In other words, even in the best of times, it’s tough to find solid EHS management commitment in small business. Now add to this the perception that EHS compliance no longer is a priority of the federal government, and the resulting risk to employees, the environment and local communities rises dramatically.

What do you get when there’s no commitment to the environment and worker safety? I’ll start with some big international examples, then point out some “big industry” examples and then expand on to how it negatively can impact small business. 

You don’t need to look far to see the smog-infested air of China, the raw sewage-infested waters of Rio during the recent Olympics or the estimated 7,000 construction workers anticipated to be killed or injured by the time the soccer stadiums are built for the upcoming world cup in in Qatar (according to an article in Fortune magazine). These countries and their governments either don’t have EHS regulations in place to control these hazards and threats or don’t enforce the ones they do have, and their leaders either don’t seem to care or don’t have the authority to make positive change. 

I don’t mean to sound overly alarmist and I am not suggesting that the United States is headed that way or doomed to the same fate, but I am saying that it’s a spectrum of risk and a potentially slippery slope of decline if we’re not careful. I think we all can agree that our country is better than that, and that none of us want such an outcome.

If these international examples don’t resonate, then consider the recent North American EHS disasters at West, Texas, when 14 people died when a fertilizer plant exploded; the huge BP gulf oil spill that not only killed 11 workers but created one of the biggest environmental disasters in U.S. history; or the 47 people who were incinerated after a train carrying crude oil exploded in Quebec, Canada last year. Not only did many people needlessly lose their lives, but there was major property damage associated with each of these events. 

These disasters illustrate what can happen when there’s a lack of commitment to managing environmental, health and safety issues in industry. This is what happens when companies lose focus, interest and concern over EHS compliance.   

What’s true for countries and big industry equally is true for small business. As previously stated, small businesses are at higher risk given their common lack of time, resources and expertise needed to manage these issues. 

When it comes to small business, the biggest risks involve worker health and safety (as opposed to environmental damage, for the simple reason that small businesses/manufacturers don’t often create the same potentially devastating environmental risks such as the ones described above). This especially is true in the construction industry, where on average, 937 workers die each year as a result of falls, struck-by’s and electrocutions. The vast majority of these fatalities occur with small “mom-and-pop” construction companies.

So there you have it, really bad things can happen when senior leadership and management lose focus on the importance of managing environmental, health and safety regulations. And that focus depends almost entirely on the management commitment component that we’ve been discussing. This equally is true for countries (ie: governments) as it is for big industry and small business. 

The Trump administration has a responsibility to carefully manage their anti-regulation rhetoric and messaging, while at the same time maintaining a firm commitment to the underlying environmental, health and safety regulations that are managed and mandated by EPA and OSHA, as well as state-level regulatory agencies.  It’s important to remember that these regulations are designed and intended to provide basic underlying preventative and protective measures to help ensure the wellbeing of American workers, our environment and local communities.

These regulations don’t kill jobs, but ignoring them will kill the very workers that Trump has promised to protect and advocate for, and damage their local  communities. The Trump administration must recognize this and act accordingly. 

Russell Carr is an entrepreneur and president of Berg Compliance Solutions, LLC, an environmental, health and safety consulting business located in Austin, TX.  He previously owned and operated three small industrial service companies, each of which operated in extremely dangerous environments that exposed his employees to a wide range of significant health and safety hazards on a regular basis. He learned early and quickly the critical importance of managing EHS issues so as to ensure the well being of his employees, as well as minimizing risks associated with the businesses. He also learned how difficult and challenging managing these issues can be.  These experiences inspired him to found Berg Compliance Solutions, LLC that specializes in helping small manufacturing, construction and industrial services companies manage EHS compliance. Carr has over 18 years of combined RCRA, DOT, OSHA, DOT and TCEQ/EPA compliance experience and has served as an expert witness in environmental enforcement cases. He can be reached at [email protected] or by calling 512-457-0374. Read other blog posts from Carr.

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