OSHA Stopped Releasing Information on Inauguration Day

Once again in my struggle to keep my eye on the policy ball rather than on the pitcher’s ridiculous haircut:

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not been releasing information that, in the past, it regularly posted on its website.  Clicking around on OSHA’s website, it’s clear that something is happening.  The President hasn’t appointed a leader for the agency yet, and since Burger Meister Andrew Puzder withdrew his name for the Secretary of Labor job, the whole Department of Labor is headless.  But even without a confirmed leader, there seem to be changes.

As Paul Feldman at Fair Warning has noted, there the OSHA website had not updated any news releases regarding enforcement since the inauguration.  Up until Jan. 19, 2017, on the OSHA site, there is a steady stream of news releases regarding employers who had been found to endanger their employees as well as announcements of fines issued.  But then such news releases stop.

OSHA also keeps a running report of workplace fatalities, a list that has not been updated since Dec. 10, 2016.  That was, of course, more than a month before the new administration took over, so I don’t know how to explain that one.  According to the site, workplace deaths must be reported to OSHA within eight hours; so presumably, if anyone has died at work since Mikko Tammelin was “struck and killed by truck lid” at the Home Depot in Eden Prairie, Minnesota on Dec. 10, then OSHA has that information, but has not posted it.  Maybe these postings are made quarterly.  Maybe there is a long bureaucratic delay before a posting.  Maybe the person in charge of doing those postings left.  I don’t know–this is my first look at the site, so I don’t know its rhythms.  Maybe America has become an extraordinarily safe place to work in the last three months–I sincerely hope that’s the answer.

And I sincerely hope that in January all U. S. employers began to strictly and rigorously follow all workplace safety regulations, and there were suddenly no fines to be issued.  Or maybe winter is just regularly a safe time (looking at the archive of information releases for previous years, I don’t think that’s so).

Maybe there’s just a pause as the new administration is struggling to get itself organized.  I looked at the archive from January 2009.  There was no such pause in the press releases when the Obama administration took over from the Bush administration–just another day, apparently, in the press office at OSHA.  If disorganization is the explanation for the lack of information, then it is evidence of a particularly disorganized administration.  The disorganization would be, in fact, of a rather aggressive sort that immediately affects even the long-established day-to-day workings of the agencies rather than only the upper-tier administrative and policy people.

I would not at all discount aggressive incompetence and indifference as explanations.  But even so, let’s look at its consequences.

Government press releases offer, among other things, a public view into some of the workings of government.  If the agency suddenly stops releasing information about its regular functions, then it’s impossible for citizens to know whether the agency is doing its work.  So long as there has been a regular release of information about fines on unsafe workplaces, it’s clear that the agency is doing its work of investigation.  It’s doing its work of checking to see whether employers are following the rules and maintaining safe workplaces for employees.  If OSHA reduces its attention to workplace safety rules and simply lets employers cut corners, then the change would be obvious in that list of press releases.  Even if few of us look at it, the evidence is available.

If a government agency no longer makes that information public, it is not going to be clear that it is doing its job.  It can go slack on its mission.  If the agency reduces the rigor of its enforcement, that reduction may not be obvious outside the agency.  Light doesn’t shine; toadstools can grow.

A further consequence (and this insight is from Feldman’s article): since the nature of a press release is to publicize things in the news media, the absence of press releases will lead to a reduction in stories about fines for unsafe working conditions.  With fewer reminders in the news of the financial consequences of cutting corners, more corners may be cut.  Fines may well be paid, but bad publicity will be avoided.  Media pricks to the conscience keep the ethical spine straight.

It may be just a temporary lapse, and all at OSHA will be in smooth working order soon.  Cynic that I am, I doubt it.

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