Five expert committees advised the federal government on ways to improve workplace safety and enhance whistleblower protections. Under President Donald Trump, their work has stopped and their recommendations are now stalled.
This article was produced in partnership with The Santa Fe New Mexican, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
Last October, Gregory Junemann received a brief email from an official at the U.S. Department of Labor effectively firing him and 15 others from a volunteer gig helping the government reduce hazards to workers.
“Thank you again for your continuing service in providing exceptional guidance on improving the health and safety of our federal workforce,” the email said.
Junemann, a labor union president, was a member of the Federal Advisory Council on Occupational Safety and Health, first established by President Richard Nixon. It is one of five panels created by law to advise the labor secretary on how to improve health, safety and whistleblower protections in nearly every facet of the workforce.
But under President Donald Trump, the boards have been mothballed or outright killed. Trump issued an executive order disbanding the board Junemann served on a few days before the members received the email thanking them for their service.
None of the boards has met for at least nine months. Some haven’t met for more than a year.
“The boards are tremendously important for the functioning of OSHA. Each one is vital,” said David Michaels, a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and the assistant labor secretary in charge of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Barack Obama. “Clearly the Department of Labor doesn't value expert advice. That is the message here.”
The boards had been working on a variety of recommendations that have now stalled.
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The Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health was in the process of recommending ways to prevent workers from being killed by large trucks backing up. The panel studied worksite traffic plans and new technologies, such as wearable beepers that alert workers when they are in the path of a hulking vehicle. OSHA is required by statute to consult with the committee before any new construction-related standards or policy are developed, effectively stalling any new regulations.
The Maritime Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health was about to start working with shipyards to implement new rules, finalized by the Obama administration, that limit the amount of beryllium shipyard workers can be exposed to under various circumstances. The rule was meant to prevent workers in many fields from developing lung disease and cancer from the widely used metal, but the Trump administration delayed enforcement for a year, until this May.
And members of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (which has a different role than the federal advisory council) spent three years creating a report for OSHA on how to better train and monitor temporary workers — a group that is especially susceptible to death and injury on the job. They also were developing ways to better track incidents among this workforce, which includes many undocumented people.
The Department of Labor did not answer questions about why the committee has not met or if they will be convened in the future. Instead, in a statement, a spokesman said, “The Department of Labor has an open-door policy with stakeholders. Through meetings, correspondence, reports, hearings, visits, and advisory committees the Department seeks stakeholder input to ensure that their concerns and viewpoints are considered as part of the policy process.”
But committee members and former labor officials say they worry that without the advisory committees, labor officials are more likely to make policy decisions in a vacuum, without the best technical expertise about how regulations might impact workers in the field.
And they are not the only boards that have been sidelined. Earlier this month, ProPublica and The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that a nuclear advisory board, created by President Barack Obama to help sick workers get medical benefits, had lapsed. No new members have been appointed or meetings scheduled, and a laundry list of the board’s recommendations remain in limbo with little communication from the Labor Department about the board’s future.
In 2016, nearly 5,200 workers died on the job and another 2.9 million suffered serious workplace-related illness, injuries or disability, according to OSHA data.
There’s no sign that the panels will meet again. In addition to disbanding the Federal Advisory Council on Occupational Health and Safety, the congressional charters that grant authority to two of the committees will expire in the coming months, and more than two dozen committee members’ terms have lapsed without new members being appointed, or even nominations solicited, by the labor secretary.
The Union of Concerned Scientists raised concerns about the Trump administration’s approach to scientific advisory roles in a January report. Beyond the stalled OSHA committees, all advisory committees at the Department of Interior have been frozen, and select committees at the Department of Energy and the Food and Drug Administration have not been appointed or have been disbanded entirely, according to the union’s analysis of 24 departments.
Moreover, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s science advisory board has lapsed for the past six months, which officials there have attributed to “delayed paperwork,” according to an article in Scientific American. And in December, members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS were dismissed by form letter, after more than half the members resigned in protest of the Trump administration’s health policies, The Washington Post reported.
The Trump administration has said it wants to cut regulations on business to promote economic development. In addition to the stalled committees, Trump has rolled back other health and safety reporting requirements, and many vacancies remain among senior Department of Labor staff.
On the day the federal council was disbanded, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., wrote to acting Assistant Labor Secretary Loren Sweatt about vacancies at OSHA, which only has enough inspectors to visit each worksite once every 159 years.
“I remain concerned about the pace of hiring at your agency as it will have severe consequences on the health and safety of workers,” she wrote, calling the issues, “a matter of life and death.”
Many of the committees were established alongside or soon after fundamental worker protections laws, at a time when the rate of workplace death was more than double the current annual rate. The committees were seen by many administrations, Republican and Democrat, as necessary components to ensure regulations were effectively crafted and enforced.
While some of the committees stopped meeting at times in the past, they have all regularly been convened for decades.
Some OSHA committee members have inquired with labor department officials to ask why meetings weren’t being scheduled, noting a congressional requirement under their charter that each board meet at least biannually.
In December, after four requests for information, Emily Spieler, a labor and law professor at Northeastern University School of Law and the chair of the Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee, established by Obama in 2012, finally received a reply. Anthony Rosa, the deputy director of Whistleblower Protection Programs, sent her an email saying the Labor Department was not convening meetings because of the president’s March 2017 executive order calling for a plan to reorganize the executive branch.
“The intent of the [executive order] is to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of the Executive Branch,” Rosa said in the email. “We do not know when this process will be completed.”
In an interview, Spieler said she and her fellow committee members “worry that the failure to convene the committee may be a lack of dedication to whistleblower issues.”
Michaels, the former head of OSHA, said the councils’ work can’t afford to stand still. At the start of a 2013 meeting of one of the longest-standing committees on worker health and safety, he read off names of workers who had died on the job.
In the first six months of that year, OSHA had flagged an increasing problem of temporary workers being harmed or killed. Four men had been crushed, suffocated or fallen to their deaths on their first day of work, he said. And three months before the meeting, 15 people, including 12 first responders, died in a chemical explosion in West, Texas.
Michaels asked the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health to come up with ways to help.
“Something clearly went wrong at West,” said Mark Carleson, whose term expired in December after five years on the national advisory committee. “You try to learn how not to have that happen again.”
In the absence of some of the committees, issues have already arisen, said Junemann, the former federal advisory council member and president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, a union that includes private and public sector employees.
In recent months, two large eastern shipyards have failed to reach cooperative agreements between unions and management on a voluntary protection program for worker health and safety practices, he said. This is the first time in at least 12 years that the shipyards’ programs have not been certified and a compromise could not be reached.
“I would normally bring this” to the council, Junemann said, “but there is no [council] to bring it to. … I think workers are going to continue to hang on for dear life, hoping they will do so until the next administration.”
Committees Dormant Under Trump
The following committees, set up to advise the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, have gone dormant under President Trump:
Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health
- Established: 1969
- Number of members: 15. Eight members’ terms expired in September 2017; the rest will expire this July. The committee lacks a quorum and cannot convene.
- Last meeting: June 20, 2017
- Role: Has provided expertise on every OSHA standard in the construction industry for decades and must be consulted before the Department of Labor finalizes any construction industry-related rule-making, from ergonomic guidelines to work with hexavalent chromium.
- Pending issues: Preventing trucks from backing up and killing workers, a common cause of death at construction sites, and new telecommunication tower standards, prompted by workers falling to their deaths while working on the towers.
National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health
- Established: 1969
- Number of members: 12. Six members’ terms expired at the end of 2017; the rest will expire at the end of this year. The committee lacks a quorum and cannot convene.
- Last meeting: Nov. 15, 2016
- Role: Advises on issues from reducing illness and injury in poultry line assembly to blood-borne pathogens, working closely with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The group helped push forward silica regulations that were adopted in 2016.
- Pending issues: Regulations to protect temporary workers and emergency responders.
Federal Advisory Council on Occupational Safety and Health
- Established: 1971
- Number of members: 16. All members were effectively fired on Sept. 29, 2017 by executive order
- Last meeting: Feb. 18, 2016
- Role: Developed federal training guidelines, adopted by OSHA, for workers' health and safety, and helped to ensure that federal contractors work with unions on developing safe environments for such work as refueling nuclear submarines.
- Pending issues: Recommendations to prevent workers at federal sites in Florida from Zika exposure.
Maritime Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health
- Established: 1995
- Members: 15. All members’ terms expired in February 2018
- Last meeting: Aug. 10, 2016
- Roll: Provides advice and technical expertise on health and safety issues in shipyards, the longshore industry and commercial fishing vessels. Since the committee was created, fewer maritime workers have diedannually of asphyxiation or drowning.
- Pending issues: Implementation of a new, more aggressive beryllium standard that will take effect in May. Also, guidelines to prevent lead and other toxic exposure during welding.
Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee
- Established: 2012
- Members: 12. Six members’ terms expired in November; the rest will expire at the end of November 2018. The committee lacks a quorum and cannot convene.
- Last meeting: April 26, 2016
- Role: Developed a first-of-its kind guideline for how employers in 22 industries should address whistleblower issues and created a forum at its meetings for the public to bring up issues they felt had been unfairly dealt with.
Pending issues: Whistleblower protection issues within the railroad industry, improving the relationship between OSHA’s health and safety programs and its whistleblower protection programs.