What will the unpredictable Mr. Trump do to OSHA?

How about appointing Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery Channel show, “Dirty Jobs,” as OSHA boss? Lame-duck OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels jokingly brought up Rowe’s name in a speech earlier this year, asserting the agency would survive a Trump presidency.

You’d have OSHA in an unusual alignment with the White House: a reality-show president and a reality-show chief of OSHA.

Mike Rowe at OSHA is a reach, to say the least. But the idea reinforces what screenwriter William Goldman once wrote about Hollywood filmmakers: “Nobody knows anything.”

That certainly applies to OSHA’s fate for the time being. We’re very early in the game.

What history teaches

If history is any lesson, here’s what we’ve seen: When a Republican is in the White House, the president doesn’t spend much time thinking about labor, the Department of Labor, or little ole OSHA with its tiny $550 million budget (compared to EPA’s $8+ billion budget). In the parlance of Washington, OSHA is a “backwater agency.”

It’s certainly fair to assume you won’t see new standards coming out of OSHA in the next four years. Most likely you’ll see: 1) a return to OSHA emphasizing education, compliance assistance, and being “user friendly;” 2) no big-time enforcement, no heavy emphasis on the fines; and 3) ramping back up the Voluntary Protection Program, which suffered a loss of prestige under the Michaels’ OSHA regime when it put more resources into enforcement at the expense of voluntary outreach.

We had eight quiet years of OSHA under George W. Bush, with OSHA bosses who gave speeches, promoted VPP, made the “business case” for safety and health, and let the regulatory agenda languish. Or more to the point, they were told by higher ups at the Department of Labor to forget about new regs.

Abolish the agency?

For all the talk of “draining the swamp” that is Trump’s supporters’ view of Washington institutions, don’t expect to see the dismantling of OSHA. You have a sleepy, small “backwater” agency that rarely makes national news; why risk political fallout by trying to kill an agency designed to protect workers? Mr. Trump’s populist image as being pro-worker would take a major hit in the media and with unions and Democrats. It’s not worth the ruckus over a $550 million-a-year agency.

Instead, OSHA will likely limp along, perhaps with reduced funding, according to Washington sources. The agency is not as vulnerable as it was when President Reagan took office in 1980, and a “STOP OSHA” movement was in full swing. Reagan promised to get OSHA off the back of business by placing it at the top of the agencies he would abolish. Instead, during his tenure the agency issued some of its biggest standards – hazcom and the hearing conservation amendment. Other big standards like bloodborne pathogens, lockout-tagout, and hazardous waste operations and emergency response came under Republican presidents. So who knows?

OSHA careerists live by the motto, “This too shall pass.” Meaning they are in it for the long run and will outlast anyone in the White House. They watch presidents come and go. As seasoned bureaucrats, they adjust their sails to the prevailing winds.

Moderating influences?

Finally, there are indications that the prevailing winds in Washington may be more moderate than expected, at least as far as OSHA is concerned. J. Steven Hart, a longtime Washington lobbyist and insider, is the head of the Trump labor issues transition team.  Hart’s expertise is benefits and retirement issues, which he worked on during a stint at the Department of Labor. Hart also worked at the Justice Department and the Office of Management and Budget. He is a board member and past president of the Lung Cancer Alliance. Not exactly an extremist bomb thrower.

That also goes for Victoria A. Lipnic, whose name has come up as a possible Secretary of Labor in the Trump Administration. She is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor and current commissioner of the bipartisan Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She was appointed to that post by President Obama in 2010. Her policies don’t run along partisan lines: she has worked to reform overtime regulations, family leave and has expressed concern for the gender wage gap.

Climate change

OSHA is only as robust as the Secretary of Labor allows. Elizabeth Dole, Labor Secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration, give OSHA boss Jerry Scannell great leeway to make radical proposals to ban smoking in workplaces and require workers traveling on business to wear seat belts. Elaine Chao, George W. Bush’s only Labor Secretary, is the wife of powerful Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, and she kept a tight leash on OSHA chief John Henshaw, who more than once likened himself to a sailor going where the political winds beyond his control steered him. The current Labor Secretary is Thomas Perez, a career union and civil rights advocate. Seen in DC as a friend of unions, Perez supported OSHA chief Michaels’ late-in-the-game regulatory rollout of standards for silica dust protection, confined spaces in construction, and electronic recordkeeping.

But those were different days.