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President Donald Trump delivers remarks on tax reform at the Loren Cook Co. on  Wednesday, Aug. 30, in Springfield, Missouri. (AP photo)
President Donald Trump delivers remarks on tax reform at the Loren Cook Co. on Wednesday, Aug. 30, in Springfield, Missouri. (AP photo)

Labor protections at risk, Trump foes warn

By Jennifer Norris

Promising huge corporate tax cuts, President Donald Trump last month visited a Springfield, Missouri, manufacturing company run by a family of Trump campaign donors.

The speech about taxes was no surprise to most, but what did catch the attention of some was the manufacturing company itself, Loren Cook Co., which recently beat a lawsuit from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after one of its workers was struck and killed by machining parts.

Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant chief of OSHA under President Barack Obama, took to his blog on the day of Trump’s speech to remind the public that Loren Cook Co., which manufactures fans and exhaust systems, had faced a $511,000 penalty after the 2009 death of one of its workers. OSHA said the worker’s death was caused by seven alleged willful and three alleged serious violations by Loren Cook.

A missing guard on the worker’s lathe had allowed a rotating metal object to break free from the machine, flying at 50 to 70 miles per hour toward the operator’s head and killing him, Barab said.

Because of what Barab calls a bad court decision, Loren Cook got most of the case thrown out, after years of back and forth in the courts.

But the president’s public support of Loren Cook is just the most recent addition to the list of reasons worker advocates are worrying about labor protections under the Trump administration.

Right after inauguration, Trump used the Congressional Review Act to roll back several Obama-era regulations designed to protect workers, such as the OSHA rule requiring construction and manufacturing companies to keep at least a five-year record of injuries and illnesses.

“What that essentially means is OSHA is no longer able to enforce record-keeping accuracy,” Barab said. “If you look at OSHA’s history you’ll see that they have found massive record-keeping violations in the past, and have been able to leverage that to create major change in the industry, but that will no longer be possible.”

Barab said the administration is also trying to weaken OSHA’s recently passed rules designed to protect workers from beryllium, a metal found in coal slag that can cause severe lung problems, including cancer. Again, the administration came down on the side of businesses instead of workers, Barab said.

“The people who sell coal slag obviously had a problem with that [rule],” Barab said, “So they sued and raised a ruckus in Congress, and the Trump administration postponed enforcement and then rolled back some of the requirements.”

But over at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, staff members are welcoming Trump’s regulation rollbacks. Without specifically mentioning the OSHA rule changes, Sean Hackbarth, a senior editor for the chamber’s blog, wrote a post applauding Trump and Congress for repealing so many regulations in the first six months.

“With two branches of our government in sync on needing to tame the Regulatory State, we have an opportunity to significantly reform how federal regulations are made, and there’s a bill in Congress to do that,” Hackbarth wrote. “The Regulatory Accountability Act will ensure smarter, more effective regulations.”

Hackbarth ended by proclaiming the act would be the “icing on the cake for a successful year of regulatory achievements.”

But a lawyer at a Washington, D.C., firm, who mostly represents whistleblowers and employees, saw the president’s changes in a different light.

“We’re under attack,” she said, asking for her name to be withheld. “We had a meeting of whistleblower lawyers right after the election and we just asked ‘how is this going to change everything?’ I think our feeling is things are going to get worse, and we’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Barab said OSHA is still currently leaderless, with the president yet to appoint a deputy chief, and he’s not excited about the leaders who have been appointed.

After a new deputy assistant chief was named, the OSHA website removed its running list of worker fatalities from its front page and then released a statement claiming the change would better help people understand and prevent further deaths.

Barab said that explanation was mystifying, and he accused them of trying to hide worker fatalities.

Despite their many concerns, both Barab and the whistleblower lawyer agreed the silver lining is that, even with more than three years left in his term, Trump will likely not be able to undo many of the worker protections.

“It takes OSHA about seven to 10 years to issue a new regulation. And it’s not much easier to repeal a regulation than it is to pass a regulation,” Barab said. “You still have to go through the whole regulatory process. When you’re in the administration, it’s very frustrating that the wheels of government move so slowly, but when you’re outside you realize it’s not too bad, because it turns out the wheels of government turn slowly forwards as well as backwards.”

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