When Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta testified before Congress earlier this month, he emphasized balancing safety agencies’ legal obligations and commitments with President Trump’s commitment to deregulation. Meanwhile, members from both parties on the Subcommittee of Labor, Health, Human Services, Education and Related Agencies of the House Committee on Appropriations focused heavily on $1.2 billion in proposed budget cuts at the Department of Labor (but not for OSHA or MSHA).

An adversarial beginning – worker safety vs. compliance assistance

The Subcommittee Chair, Congresswoman DeLauro (D-CT), opened the hearing with an adversarial tone.  For his part, Secretary Acosta acknowledged his duty to fully enforce the laws to protect “the Nation’s most important asset- American workers” against ‘bad actors.”   He emphasized that DOL’s compliance assistance programs promote cooperative efforts between the government, and he maintained that the “majority of employers abide by the laws.” Rep. DeLauro and other members in the majority responded by questioning DOL’s priorities and commitment to worker safety.

Debating the data on enforcement and worker safety and health

In response, Secretary Acosta calmly cited to the ample data showing that OSHA is doing the job Congress set for it and the safety and health of the Nation’s workers continues to improve. He noted:

  • OSHA conducted more than 32,000 investigations in FY 2017 and FY 2018, exceeding the number of inspections in 2016.
  • Acosta lifted the hiring freeze by hiring 76 new OSHA inspectors in 2018 and expects the number of inspections to increase beginning in 2019 as a result of his decision. The training period for new inspectors is between 1 and 3 years depending on their expertise and the complexity of the inspections.
  • In FY 2018, OSHA conducted 26,352 compliance visits and identified or corrected 135,021 hazards with an estimated savings in injuries and costs of $1.3 billion.
  • Relying on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for FY 2017, Acosta claimed that the three year upward trend in fatalities fell to 3.5 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers (43 fewer fatalities in 2017) despite an increase in the number of workers employed. According to Acosta, the BLS also reported that nonfatal incidents in private industry fell to 2.8 per 100 full time equivalent workers (45,800 fewer cases).

Chair DeLauro briefly cited for the record statistics from a report prepared by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) that was authored by Deborah Berkowitz and claims that OSHA inspections and enforcement units had decreased. NELP is a labor advocacy group, and Ms. Berkowitz previously worked at the Department of Labor in the Obama Administration. The NELP report charges that OSHA is emphasizing the quantity of enforcement over the quality of it.

Congresswoman Bustros (D-IL) similarly questioned DOL’s commitment to protecting workers in light of proposed budget cuts, increasing workplace fatality investigations, and a 10-year low in the number of OSHA inspectors. Noting an increase in the Office of Labor Management budget, Representative Bustros asserted that DOL was more concerned with investigating labor unions than protecting worker safety. In response, Secretary Acosta disagreed and focused his responses on the Administration’s request of an additional $15 million for OSHA enforcement activities.

The FY 2020 Presidential budget proposal relating to OSHA includes the following requests:

  • $557.5 million for OSHA, characterized by the Labor Secretary as a slight increase, however, in reality represents a slight decrease in funding from OSHA’s FY 2019 budget of $557.7 million, according to OSHA’s own website. The FY 2020 proposed budget includes an additional $15 million for OSHA enforcement according to the Secretary’s testimony.
  • Additional funding for staff, including 30 additional Compliance Safety and Health Officers and five additional whistleblower investigators.

In mining, record safety and compliance assistance

Secretary Acosta touted MSHA’s success in creating a safer mining industry by meeting its statutory obligation to inspect every mine two or four times a year. He also highlighted 2018 as a record low for fatalities in the mining industry.

More specifically, Secretary Acosta emphasized MSHA providing compliance assistance to the mining community. He also reported on the “One MSHA” or “blurring the lines” initiative, in which MSHA says it can use its resources more efficiently by consolidating some enforcement activities across all mines, whether coal or metal/non-metal. In addition, Acosta noted:

  • 69,186 hours of compliance assistance in the field by Educational Field and Small Mine Services.
  • 443 days of compliance assistance training to the mining community.
  • MSHA’s annual Training Resources Applied to Mining (TRAM) conference.
  • DOL’s plan to consolidate the offices of Metal and Nonmetal Safety and Health and Coal Mine Safety and Health into the office of Mine Safety and Health Enforcement. The plan arose from a need to better utilize the capacity of field inspectors by cross training metal/nonmetal mine inspectors and coal mine inspectors. The merger would result in a new enforcement structure that eliminates duplication to more efficiently use resources.

The FY 2020 Presidential budget proposal for MSHA requests $376 million, a $2.2 million dollar increase over the FY 2019 revised enacted budget of $373.8 million.

Budget concerns dominated

Subcommittee members used the hearing to address concern over a number of other specific DOL programs, such as unregistered apprenticeship programs; the federal minimum wage; association health plans; and workforce development programs. But by far, the legislators were most concerned about hefty proposed budget cuts to specific DOL programs including:

  • Job Corps.
  • Dislocated Worker National Reserve.
  • Women’s Bureau.
  • Bureau of International Labor Affairs.
  • Office of Disability Employment Policy.
  • National Farmworkers Job Program.
  • Job training for Indian and Native American Indians.

Overall, a bipartisan segment of the subcommittee, including Representative Tom Cole (R-OK), seemed to agree that while the DOL is living within its budget, it’s underfunded. The subcommittee members appeared to support additional DOL funding in FY 2020.

Stayed tuned to Safety Law Matters as we monitor developments in Washington that affect your workplace.

Tracey Oakes O’Brien was a contributing author of this content.