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Commentary: The 2020 Election’s Impact on Safety

Sept. 29, 2020
No matter who wins, safety regulation and enforcement will continue.

COMMENTARY

The national election this November promises the possibility of momentous change, and that could be the case for federal safety regulation.

Such was the case in 2016. But this time the dividing lines between both ends of the political spectrum are even more pronounced since President Trump took office. You don’t need to look further than recent headlines to see this fiery division play out.

Controversies are constantly aired in the media about the Coronavirus pandemic and how the nation should respond. Listen to Trump and his allies and they are happy to tell you that he did everything perfectly from the start. According to Biden and his supporters, though, Trump did everything wrong and bears sole responsibility for the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans.

The truth is that there is plenty of blame to go around when it comes to mistakes made by the President and his administration, as well as Democratic governors and other leaders in the early stages of the pandemic. In a less heated political environment, it would be recognized that most people were operating with the best intentions and best information available to them at the time.

An example of the worst behavior created by the current environment is the overwrought reaction to actions taken by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Like other federal agencies, OSHA staff felt impelled to rush out guidance memos on how employers were expected to confront the illness. And like its sister agencies, OSHA also had to issue updates and revisions as events changed and employers raised questions.

It was this need to act quickly that led the agency to decide not to issue formal Emergency Temporary Standards. This was loudly and persistently criticized by unions, the news media, and Democratic legislators and governors as an abandonment of workers. What they deliberately left out was that the General Duty Clause in OSHA’s enabling law allows it to act against employers for any failure to maintain a safe and healthy working environment.

The rhetoric became so over the top that Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia had to tell the head of the AFL-CIO in late April, “I ask that you show due respect for the steps the dedicated men and women at OSHA are taking now.”

In spite of budget constraints, OSHA pursued a record number of workplace inspections in 2019 and since Trump began his term has adopted new policies and mounted enforcement initiatives.

Expect changes if Biden becomes President. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) will no longer be run by a former mine operator, and you can be sure that the Department of Transportation’s controversial commercial driver hours of service regulations will be reversed. OSHA’s programs encouraging collaborative programs to educate employers about how to be safer will be abandoned in favor of a return to the stress on “public shaming” that was favored by Obama-era officials.

If Trump wins re-election, we can hope that labor interests and Democratic politicians will calm down and back off unwarranted attacks on the hard-working, dedicated men and women of OSHA. 

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