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OSHA Eyes Budget Increase, Resumes “Naming and Shaming”

Infrastructure proposals like President Biden’s two trillion dollar plan are getting most of the attention in the construction industry, and with good reason. The proposal represents a once-in-a-generation investment in America’s roads, bridges, water system and energy grid, and has the potential to create millions of good-paying union jobs.

With all the focus on infrastructure, another much smaller budget proposal has flown under the radar. The Biden administration’s proposed 2022 budget of $14.2 billion for the Department of Labor (DOL) is a drop in the bucket compared to $2 trillion, but it has important implications for OSHA and other agencies that fall under DOL’s purview.

The proposed budget is a 14 percent increase from 2021 and is $1.4 billion more than what former President Trump proposed. How would DOL use that increase?

  • Enforcement. The proposal calls for $2.1 billion for OSHA and the Wage and Hour Division. This 17 percent budget increase would boost enforcement by allowing OSHA to hire more inspectors. The agency lost about 14 percent of its staff under the Trump administration. To get an idea of how little funding OSHA currently has to work with, the AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report noted that the agency’s 2021 budget gives them less than $4 per U.S. worker. In addition to safety and health inspections, the increased funding would allow more investigations into workers being misclassified as independent contractors, which continues to be one of the most common ways that workers are denied safe and healthy working conditions.
  • Unemployment insurance. The proposed DOL budget would also – for the first time in decades – update how unemployment insurance funding flows to states. The inadequacies of the current unemployment insurance system became a particular area of focus during the pandemic. The aim of the new system is to help states serve claimants much more quickly.
  • Training workers for careers in clean energy. The proposal also includes $100 million to train workers in Appalachian communities transitioning away from fossil fuel production. This funding is in addition to other federal programs to reskill workers and transform the communities they live in.

“This funding proposal is as bold as it is necessary in its scope and economic impact as we seek to boost workers and families out of the most challenging economic situation in generations. The proposal acknowledges and addresses the burden that communities of color and other traditionally underserved groups have borne throughout the pandemic,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh.

OSHA Is Back in the Business of Highlighting Bad Actors

With fewer inspectors than the agency needs, it appears OSHA may be returning to an old strategy (and one that happens to be very cost-effective). Under the Obama administration, OSHA regularly used press releases to announce large fines against companies found to be violating workplace safety rules. This tactic was often referred to as “naming and shaming.”

At the time, OSHA acknowledged that the tactic led to increased news coverage for the agency and for the employers that were cited. Several studies showed the practice led to reduced violations among employers in the same industry and in the surrounding area of the business that was cited. One study estimated that a single press release had the same effect as 210 OSHA inspections.

Under the Trump administration, OSHA almost completely stopped this tactic. Now, with new leadership at the Department of Labor, the agency has brought it back. Checking OSHA’s press releases page shows a weekly listing of violations handed out by each OSHA region, including the company’s name, the safety and health hazards they exposed employees to and the total amount of the citations issued.

In the past, we’ve covered how the size of OSHA fines are generally not much of a deterrent to large employers, especially when the fines are often later reduced on appeal. But negative PR can have a serious impact on an employer’s bottom line and reputation, especially when new projects are on the line. This news should give employers one more reason to follow OSHA standards and protect the safety and health of their workforce.

[Nick Fox]

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