Workers lose wage and safety protections

Two Obama-era rules aimed at protecting workers’ health and safety and protecting them from wage law violations have been put on hold.

One of the rules called the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule went into effect in August. It required companies bidding on federal contracts to disclose past wage and safety law violations.

The Republican-controlled Senate on March 6 voted to overturn the Fair Pay and Safe Workplace rule.

The Senate vote was preceded by a similar vote in the House of Representatives. Legislation overturning the rule now goes to President Trump for his signature.

The other rule, which the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued in January, protected workers from on-the-job exposure to toxic beryllium dust.

It was to go into effect in March.

But the Trump administration in February delayed its implementation and returned it to the Labor Department for further review.

The Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule requires federal agencies to consider a company’s past record on complying with wage and safety laws when determining whether to award contracts to the company.

Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said that the rule is needed because too many companies that have been awarded government contracts are breaking laws meant to protect workers.

“Though its impact on employers is minimal, the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule is important both because federal contractors employ one in five of America’s workers and because many businesses with the most serious workplace violations continue to be awarded federal contracts,” said Owens.

Senator Elizabeth Warren recently issued a report detailing the pervasiveness of wage and safety violations among federal contractors.

According to the report, 66 of the 100 hundred biggest federal contractors “have been caught breaking federal labor laws.”

The report also finds that the top ten federal contractors have committed 64,590 wage law violations since 2005. As a result of those violations, the same companies paid a total $64.4 million in back wages to compensate workers for the violations.

Wage violations aren’t the only problem. “Too often federal contracts are awarded to companies that put workers in serious danger,” states the senator’s report.

“Of the largest 100 penalties imposed by OSHA since January 2015, more than a third were issued to companies that have held federal contracts within the last decade,” continues the report.

In some cases the violations that caused the penalties were lethal. For example, Goodyear Tire and Rubber recently agreed to pay $1.75 million in penalties to settle charges of safety violations that caused the death of four workers at the Goodyear plant in Danville, Virginia between August 2015 and August 2016.

Prior to the rule being issued, Goodyear was awarded $8.3 million in government contracts in 2016 alone.

The Obama administration passed another rule to protect workers safety when OSHA issued new regulations reducing workers’ exposure to beryllium dust.

Beryllium is a light, high strength metal used in the aerospace, defense, consumer products, and construction industries.

More than 62,000 workers work at jobs that expose them to beryllium dust, which when inhaled can cause a serious respiratory disease. It has also been linked to lung cancer.

The rules require employers to provide breathing equipment to workers exposed to beryllium dust and to measure and monitor the levels of beryllium dust at work sites.

When the beryllium rules were enacted in January, the United Steelworkers (USW), whose membership includes thousands of workers who work with the toxic metal, praised the new rules and said that  beryllium protection was long overdue.

“This has been a long time in the making,” said USW International President Leo W. Gerard when the new rule was announced in January. “The USW has advocated for an OSHA rule since the early 1970s. This rule will protect workers who are exposed to beryllium in general industry, construction and shipyards and ensure that controls are put in place to prevent future occupational illness from developing.”

USW reports that OSHA first proposed a beryllium standard  in 1975, but political pressure forced cancellation of the rule making process.  In 2012, USW collaborated with Materion Brush, the world’s largest beryllium producer, to draft beryllium standards that the union and company presented to OSHA.

Those standards became the basis for the new rules

Michael Wright,  USW director of Health, Safety and Environment, called the new rule,  “a strong, protective worker health rule.”

But the rule might have been too strong and too protective for the Trump administration, which delayed its implementation and instructed its Labor Department to reassess the rule.

Fortune reports that the delay and further review of the rule could result in extensive changes the rule or, more likely, its revocation.

 

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