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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Trump administration is toothless on workers’ safety. Is it Alex Azar’s fault?

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Before becoming health and human services secretary, Alex Azar was a career public official. You probably haven’t heard of him. But he’s going to make a big impact on your life if you’re a worker in one of the meatpacking plants.

Azar is currently serving as director of the Office of Management and Budget. Soon after President Trump picked him to head the department, his tenure was marred by complaints that his OMB staff was blocking a push to toughen regulations governing workplaces.

First, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, which has been fighting a losing battle to make workplaces safer for decades, lost its flagship asbestos enforcement case. The agency’s lawyers lost on each of two separate grounds in the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. To compound the embarrassment, the judges repeatedly admonished the Obama administration for adopting “arbitrary and capricious” regulations that weren’t in the public interest. The court ruled that OSHA’s rush to issue new rules based on the failure of smaller companies to pay for old mine safety regulations was not in the public interest.

But OSHA’s regulatory zeal isn’t only focused on asbestos, which is a serious disease that often strikes miners and other workers in dangerous industries. OSHA also subjects meatpacking plants to hundreds of new inspections each year, and many workers in that industry have described conditions in plants as akin to factories that might be shut down under OSHA’s more extreme standards.

In 2006, the most recent year for which OSHA has released inspection data, the agency found five workplace violations in an average of 16 inspections in the industry. Workers complained about bad ventilation and heat hazards. Workers said they didn’t have the proper tools for work, like safety straps, so they could climb scaffolding or other parts of the plant without them. Some said they were given unsafe machinery.

More than a dozen workers at a U.S. hog farm that was the subject of a recent scandal, the 2008 death of 30-year-old Jessse Dillon, said at least two other companies in the business kept their plants unsafely dilapidated, until workers’ deaths struck. OSHA, according to Dillon’s death certificate, found that the plant’s workers were exposed to levels of certain toxic substances that “are detrimental to labor.” However, for years, workers in that industry say, they paid no attention to those violations because they thought they would get fired if they complained.

Last month, OSHA issued a surprise warning to Tyson Foods, one of the largest U.S. meatpackers, to ensure that it was taking appropriate measures to ensure that employees weren’t dying from heat stroke and other unsafe conditions. The agency’s letter revealed that OSHA had received more than 2,000 complaints about heat, including claims that workers had collapsed and died.

The agency also caught the Ohio State Patrol at an exercise where human waste spilled onto the fields. Here, too, OSHA is suing to hold an industry accountable to make sure that workers are safe.

OSHA’s letters and warnings have little impact on the meatpacking industry because regulators stop short of the sort of sweeping regulation that would reduce the cost of doing business. If OSHA wanted to curb animal production in the interests of workers, for example, OSHA officials would have to shut down interstate chains of meatpacking plants. Few employers want that, even though they make a lot of money by employing nonunion workers.

What’s more, even tougher OSHA standards are held up as the ultimate solution to worker safety — especially during outbreaks of diseases like salmonella — by those who want to preserve slaughtering operations. Consider what the Pennsylvania Department of Health did last year after losing an asbestos case against Wal-Mart and hundreds of other companies: it opened a “permanent investigation” into how the stores prevent exposure to asbestos.

So it’s no surprise that the industry has spent more than $2.4 million lobbying Congress over the past five years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Tyson alone spent nearly $1.4 million. Soon after Azar was confirmed, the industry’s lobbying team celebrated with an election day tweet, when it thanked him for his “steadfast support of the food safety, food traceability and food handling systems in this great country.”

It’s just another sign that Trump’s labor secretary is in way over his head.

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