How Might The Trump Administration & Pudzer Impact OSHA Regulations?

In this post, I’ll discuss the facts and political realities likely to confront the Trump administration regarding potential efforts to roll-back current & future OSHA regulations.

Trump’s has appointed Andrew Pudzer to run the Department of Labor. For those who don’t know, OSHA is a department within the DOL. Pudzer has a record that appears to be anti-regulation. Combine this with Trump’s campaign promises to roll-back regulation, it’s likely that the administration will take steps to weaken OSHA.

Although Pudzer’s record appears to be anti-regulation, we don’t yet know what he might do, nor his opinions on OHSA regulation, because his senate confirmation hearing has now been postponed 4 different times and is currently scheduled to happen on February 16th. During that confirmation hearing, we’re likely to get a better idea of his thoughts and plans.

Below are the likely hurdles facing Trump and Pudzer regarding OSHA regulation roll back:

Most Existing OSHA Regulations Are Long Established, Accepted & Proven Effective:

Current Federal and state OSHA regulations that impact industry and small business are long standing and well established.  Many OSHA laws date back to the early 70’s.  In other words, they’re long since “baked” into industry, largely accepted and proven to be effective.

Moreover, most of these laws are designed & intended to provide baseline preventative measures to protect worker safety, and don’t create excessive burdens for business. Removing these “common sense” based regulations could put workers at unnecessary and serious risk.

As a powerful example of the effectiveness of these laws, OSHA reported in October of this year that national injury and illness rates have dropped every year for the past 13 years, with the exception of 2012, with a significant drop from 2014 to 2015.  As part of the press release, Dr. David Michaels, the current head of OSHA stated:  “We are encouraged to see the significant decline in worker injury and illness rates. This is the result of the relentless efforts of employers, unions, worker advocates, occupational safety and health professionals, and federal and state government agencies ensuring that worker safety and health remains a top priority every day.”

Do Trump and Pudzer really want to risk reversing this trend? What good could come of this?

Trump Must Appease Labor Unions

It’s interesting to note that during Trump’s first full day in office, he took an hour to meet with several large union leaders. He’s made many campaign promises to lookout for “forgotten workers,” by protecting manufacturing jobs, starting a major infrastructure re-build, and pulling out of the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal).

Unions obviously represent common workers, many of whom voted Trump into office which means that he owes them a debt of gratitude. Unions and workers obviously have a vested interested in maintaining healthy and safe work places. Given these facts, it’s likely that Unions would push back hard against any significant efforts by the Trump administration to roll back OSHA regulations.

Department Appointees Are a Revolving Door, But Agency Staff Are Not:

How cooperative do you think the “rank and file” agency bureaucracy would be towards unreasonable change?  Department heads come and go, but agency staff often remain throughout multiple administrations over time, and that’s because most public servants strongly believe in their agency missions and support the laws they administer and enforce. Of course, staff members must follow management direction and do as they’re told, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll do so enthusiastically or effectively.  Any efforts to undermine agency mission would also likely result in serious damage to morale. Sure, Pudzer can install new management and shuffle staff, and probably will, but they can’t fire and replace the entire staff, and those who remain probably won’t make change easy. Add it all up, and it’s easy to imagine how civil servants could seriously undermine any administration efforts towards change.

We’ve already seen evidence of this happening with the EPA when the Trump administration recently ordered a freeze on all EPA grants. These grants are used to fund things like environmental cleanups, environmental compliance programs and funding state environmental programs. As part of the freeze, the Trump administration also banned staff members from commenting or discussing the freeze outside of the agency. The only reason we know about the freeze, and communication ban, is because a staff member leaked it to the media.

Recent History Proves That Lax OSHA Regulation Can Lead To Disaster:

Recall the recent OSHA related disasters at Flint (lead in public water), Deep Water Horizon (largest oil spill in American history), and West, TX (fertilizer plant explosion).   Each of these events were later tied to regulatory failures; either lack of regulation or failure to follow or enforce existing regulations.

Would it be wise to roll back OSHA regulations that could have prevented these disasters, and thus potentially result in similar catastrophes in the future? 


Federal vs. State regulation:

As many of you know, some states answer to Federal OSHA while others have independent state programs that must meet or exceed Federal OSHA standards.  Sure, Puzder could initiate Federal level changes, but would the state programs necessarily follow those changes?  Maybe, but probably not (for many of the same reasons outlined above).

So where does this leave the overall OSHA regulatory reform potential?  The issue really comes down to 2 things: 1) Enforcement and 2) Limiting expansion of existing or new regulations.  These are the 2 areas susceptible to change and influence by the new administration, and Pudzer will likely act on both.

Let’s take a quick look at each:

Enforcement of Current OSHA Laws:

As it is, OSHA and state health & safety agencies enforcement departments are vastly under staffed and resourced to adequately inspect the hundreds of thousands of US companies impacted by OSHA regulation, and undertake enforcement actions when necessary.  That’s always been the status quo situation regardless of administration, and will probably never change. So in reality, regardless of what the Trump administration does, the overall risk of enforcement action for any given company isn’t going to change much.

Despite this fact, it’s not hard to imagine Pudzer cutting enforcement budgets and installing management who are “anti-enforcement” minded.  This would certainly reduce the # of enforcement inspections and fines, but again enforcement action risk is already small and probably wouldn’t change significantly due to budget cuts. It’ll be interesting to see how far they go, especially given Trump’s quotes in support of “reasonable” regulation, and pledges to protect workers and the environment (see above and my first blog post).

Again, the distinction between Federal and State regulation comes into play: Non Federal OSHA states who have their own health and safety programs wouldn’t necessarily follow Federal enforcement budget cuts.

Limiting Expansion of Existing or New Regulations

Again, this is fairly straight forward. Pudzer is likely to restrict or deny any new OSHA regulations, or expansion of existing regulations at the Federal level. He’ll probably have the power to do this, and absent any major disasters or events that might suggest the need for new regulation (ie: another major oil spill, contamination or high casualty industrial event), will probably maintain that course.