Since Trump takeover, less public shaming for companies that put workers at risk

Since President Trump took office, not a single worker killed on the job has been added to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's online death tally.

The last entry on OSHA's worker fatality page was for two men shot to death in an Indianapolis restaurant robbery in early January.

So missing among the dead is Derrick Douglas, 41, a construction worker killed April 25 when a bucket boom lift machine tipped over at Wellington Point Apartments in Cobb County. And Trevor Bryan, 20, a contractor killed April 1 at a Georgia Power plant in Monroe County. And Javier Padraza-Perez, 44, who fell to his death April 4 at Pinewood Studios. And others across the country killed on the job every day.

Derrick Douglas was in the bucket of a boom lift machine when it tipped over at a construction site at a Cobb County apartment complex. CHANNEL 2 ACTION NEWS

The backlog is unusual for OSHA, which in recent years has used its website to publicly shame companies over workplace deaths and injuries. The lack of death updates, coupled with a sharp decline in press releases announcing enforcement actions, makes tracking companies that put their workers at risk even more difficult for the public.

"We should definitely be very concerned," said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO union federation. "It’s important when workers are hurt or killed, or when there are serious violations of the law, that workers, their employers and the public have access to that information, so we can focus on the most hazardous workplaces and significant problems, and most importantly, take action to prevent injuries and death in the future."

The new silence points toward what some call the Trump administration's more marshmallowy approach to corporate regulation. Fears abound that under Trump, the federal agency that stands between the working class and Dickensian job conditions will be stifled through a combination of budget cuts, rule rollbacks and a shift in culture.

An OSHA spokeswoman said that's not what's causing the holdup in announcing workplace deaths.

"It probably seems suspicious, but it actually has nothing to do with that," OSHA's Nancy Cleeland said.

Rather, a clerical worker who handled a key step in the posting process retired, then the whole process came to a halt, Cleeland said.

"Because of some staffing issues, there has been a delay in getting those posted," she said. "So there will be some more recent ones posted soon, probably by the end of the week."

OSHA falls under the Department of Labor, whose budget Trump wants to slash by about a fifth. His labor secretary nominee, Alexander Acosta, was confirmed by the Senate last week.

While the spokeswoman attributed the lack of death postings to staffing issues, she said the switchover from Obama to Trump has been the cause of OSHA's noticeable softening on press releases. Click here to see the change in tone from pre- to post-inauguration for press releases from Region 4, which covers the Southeast.

Under Obama, OSHA regularly issued statements about enforcement actions; but for months after Trump took office, they have primarily focused on safety events. Instead of typical headlines such as "Green Bay manufacturer faces more than $219K in proposed penalties after two workers suffer severe injuries within 10 days," more common are such announcements as "OSHA’s 'Safe and Sound' campaign assists employers in keeping workplaces safe and healthy."

OSHA's enforcement press releases had offered the simplest way for the public to monitor employers who flout safety rules. Without the releases, the public can still find information on some enforcement actions. But the process is more cumbersome and listed are only cases with penalties above $40,000 going back as 2015. The website also offers a severe injuries spreadsheet that starts in 2015 — when employers had to start reporting amputations, hospitalizations and loss of eyes — and ends in October 2016.

Seminario, of the AFL-CIO, said the public needs both data for deep diving and enforcement press releases, which she noted have been a practice going back at least as far as the Reagan administration.

"Most people don’t spend time like I do scrolling around the OSHA website," Seminario said. "So part of OSHA’s job is not only putting the information up on the website, but disseminating it so it actually is accessible to the public at large."

Finally, in April, enforcement-related news releases started trickling out again. OSHA admonished a drain service company for a trench collapse that killed two workers in Boston, proposing nearly $1.5 million in fines and pointing out that the company had already been fined twice in the past for trench-related hazards. The company's owner faces criminal charges.

Just yesterday, OHSA put out a release on an auto insulation manufacturer in Ohio facing nearly $570,000 in proposed penalties after a machine amputated a worker’s right hand, wrist and part of his forearm.

"We used to issue a lot of press releases on cases, on inspections and citations that we issued," Cleeland said. "And after Jan. 20, we almost completely stopped doing that, because that was a policy of the prior administration and, I think they just wanted to put a hold on things and see what the new administration wanted to do."

NOTE: This blog has been updated to reflect that OSHA's website has a limited severe injuries database covering 2015 and most of 2016, as well as information on enforcement cases with penalties above $40,000 going back to 2015.

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About the Author

Johnny Edwards
Johnny Edwards
Johnny Edwards is a member of the AJC’s investigative team, focusing on the private sector and state and federal regulation. He has worked at the newspaper...