Fewer inspectors, more deaths: The Trump administration rolls back workplace safety inspections

“The agency conducted slightly fewer safety inspections during the first three years of Trump’s presidency than during a comparable period at the end of President Barack Obama’s second term, even though the labor force grew by 16 percent, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of the agency’s inspection data.”

“The slowdown in inspections could prove dangerous for millions of workers: A Public Integrity analysis shows the vast majority of deaths and catastrophes have occurred at workplaces that weren’t inspected by OSHA.”

“The lax scrutiny comes as Trump continues to trim the regulatory powers of federal agencies. Under his watch, the Labor Department has systematically weakened rules meant to protect workers’ pay, retirement, and safety. The department, for example, scaled back a rule to extend overtime pay for millions of workers. It also tried to change pay rules to let employers pocket workers’ tips — a move later undone by Congress.

The department also has been slow to hire and replace inspectors at OSHA; their number fell from 952 in 2016 to 862 in January, the lowest number of inspectors in the agency’s history, according to the National Employment Law Project.

Staffing has since gone down to 761 inspectors, according to the Labor Department.”

“During the first three years under Trump, OSHA conducted about 81,000 safety inspections — a 4.7 percent decrease from about 85,000 conducted during the last three years of Obama’s presidency, according to a Public Integrity analysis of the agency’s inspection data.
“Unless someone dies at a workplace or there’s some significant accident, [the employer] is very unlikely to be inspected now,” said a former OSHA official under Obama, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press at his new job.

But Congress hasn’t cut OSHA’s enforcement budget; instead, it has given the agency slightly more funding than the administration has asked for. It earmarked $576.8 million for fiscal year 2020 — $19.3 million more than requested.

Former OSHA officials say the decrease in inspectors has more to do with the federal hiring freeze imposed during Trump’s first year in the office. Dozens of inspectors left their jobs in the months following his inauguration, and the Labor Department has been slow to replace them.

OSHA “has done a poor job filling the vacancies,” said Rebecca Reindel, safety and health director for the AFL-CIO labor federation.”

“Research shows that OSHA inspections have a significant impact on safety. In 2012, for example, researchers at Harvard University and the University of California Berkeley found that companies subject to the agency’s random inspections showed a 9.4 percent decrease in injury rates compared with uninspected ones. They also found no evidence of any added cost to inspected companies from complying with regulations.
In 2010, researchers with the RAND Corporation analyzed workers’ compensation data in Pennsylvania and found that OSHA inspections were linked to a sharp decline in reported injuries at medium-size companies. Inspections that led to citations with penalties played a role in reducing injuries by an average of 19 to 24 percent each year for the two years following each inspection.

“Inspections work,” said Reindel of the AFL-CIO. “If an employer thinks they won’t get inspected, they will take fewer steps to protect workers.””

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s new Russia report, explained

““The Russian government engaged in an aggressive, multi-faceted effort to influence, or attempt to influence, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election,” the report, which was co-signed by both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate committee, says. “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian effort to hack computer networks and accounts affiliated with the Democratic Party and leak information damaging to Hillary Clinton and her campaign for president” to WikiLeaks.

Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chair, comes under heavy criticism in the report for his “willingness to share information with individuals closely affiliated with the Russian intelligence services” — this “represented a grave counterintelligence threat.”

However, the report goes further than special counsel Robert Mueller did — it claims some information suggests Manafort and a longtime associate of his, Konstantin Kilimnik, were “connected” to the Russian government’s effort to hack and leak Democrats’ emails. These details are redacted, though.

The report also retells the story of how Roger Stone tried to get inside information on WikiLeaks’ plans at the behest of the Trump campaign. “Stone obtained information indicating that John Podesta would be a target of an upcoming release,” the report says. It also describes Jerome Corsi’s claims that Stone tried to get WikiLeaks to time the release of Podesta’s emails to distract from the Access Hollywood tape.

There are many other topics addressed in the report, including some criticism for how the FBI handled the “Steele dossier” allegations about Trump. There are also matters that remain murky — most notably, the purpose and extent of Manafort’s communications with Kilimnik, and the exact nature of the information Stone got regarding WikiLeaks.”

“For the first time in my life, I had money in my savings”: Workers on the relief of the $600 weekly benefit

“The CARES Act represented a near-unprecedented, if temporary, expansion of the social safety net. According to one estimate by University of Chicago economists in May, as many as 68 percent of newly unemployed workers were on track to collect a higher salary under the enhanced benefits (that is, if they were able to actually get through to swamped unemployment offices to apply). But while some lawmakers have tried to use this phenomenon as a reason to slash the extra benefits — insisting, against all evidence, that it’s convincing people not to return to work at all — the fact that so many workers outearned their salaries with a $600 per week boost (an average of $15 an hour for a 40-hour workweek) only highlights the failures of the American labor system.

The numbers tell a clear story: The US is generally not kind to the working class. According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, a true living wage shakes out to about $16.54 per hour — but no state has a minimum wage that high. According to the researchers, two adults in a family of four would each have to work 75 hours a week at minimum wage to meet that living standard.

The average American worker also puts in 1,779 hours a year — not the most hours among the countries in the 37-member Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development index, but well above peers like Japan (1,644) and Germany (1,386). The OECD Work-Life Balance rankings found that US workers have less leisure time and face higher rates of gender inequity in the workforce than many of the countries on the list. And in normal times, we spend the second-least on unemployment aid after the Slovak Republic.”

“As lawmakers continue to grapple with how much, and for how long, they ought to aid unemployed Americans, Vox talked to three workers about the extra benefits. For each, they offered a much-needed hiatus from the grind of the American labor system. They paid bills, helped out friends, and pursued long-neglected interests. Receiving the extra money didn’t change their minds about their desire for employment — but after years of panicking and overworking themselves, it finally gave them the chance to breathe.”

This might be your most important flu shot ever

“This fall and winter, health experts expect two types of deadly viruses to be circulating widely in the US. But they don’t yet know what the extent of the damage will be when the two collide.

In the absence of a coherent federal response, the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the country, with several states still battling active outbreaks. Experts estimate it could continue to hospitalize thousands and kill hundreds of people a day into September — likely with more spikes in the coming months.

We’re also now staring down the annual flu season, which typically starts in October and burdens the health care system even in normal years. The 2018–2019 flu season in the US, for example, resulted in about half a million hospitalizations and more than 34,000 deaths. The previous season, deaths were double that. And communities of color, which have already been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19, historically have also been more likely to have chronic health conditions that put them at higher risk of influenza-related complications.”

“One problem is that because influenza and Covid-19 are both respiratory viruses, severe cases will be treated on much of the same limited medical equipment, like ventilators. And because they can have overlapping symptoms, figuring out whether someone has the flu or Covid-19 — or neither — will be tricky but also important.

Fortunately, we already have a safe vaccine for the flu, and nearly 200 million doses are slated to be available in the coming months.”

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that everyone 6 months and older (with very rare exceptions, like a life-threatening egg allergy) should get a flu shot. And this year, it is more crucial than ever to get one, experts say, to reduce the spread of the virus and keep the health care system from being overtaxed with continued surges of Covid-19.”

Air pollution is much worse than we thought

“even as attention has shifted to climate change, the air pollution case has grown stronger and stronger, as the science on air pollution has advanced by leaps and bounds. Researchers are now much more able to pinpoint air pollution’s direct and indirect effects, and the news has been uniformly bad.”

“the effects of air pollution are roughly twice as bad as previously estimated.”

“Right now, air pollution leads to almost 250,000 premature deaths a year in the US. Within a decade, aggressive decarbonization could reduce that toll by 40 percent; over 20 years, it could save around 1.4 million American lives that would otherwise be lost to air quality.”

“With giant data sets, “you can control for socioeconomic status, temperature, hypertension and other existing conditions,” and other variables, says Shindell. “You can convincingly demonstrate that correlation is in fact causal, because you can rule out essentially every other possibility.””

““The well-understood pathways, things like strokes, lower respiratory infections, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, only seem to capture about half the total,” Shindell says. “When you look at the [new] studies, you find that air pollution seems to affect almost every organ in the human body.””

“It is no coincidence that Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency is trying to exclude consideration of co-benefits (often the largest class of benefits) in its air quality rulemakings. It’s no coincidence that it is trying to exclude consideration of studies with anonymous participants, a category that encompasses all the latest research Shindell and others draw on. The fossil fuel lobby, which now includes the entire executive branch, has long understood that the science isn’t going its way. These rule changes are its last-ditch bid to blind the government to new research.”

“It is true that climate change can only be averted with the entire world’s cooperation; if the US reduces its emissions to net zero but the other countries of the world (especially China and India) continue on their current trajectory, it will make almost no difference in temperature. The health benefits of avoided severe heat will not manifest.
However — and this is the crucial fact — the air quality benefits will manifest, no matter what the rest of the world does. Shindell’s team ran a version of their scenario in which the US came into compliance with a 2°C pathway but the rest of the world continued with current policies. “We found that US action alone would bring us more than two-thirds of the health benefits of worldwide action over the next 15 years,” Shindell testified, “with roughly half the total over the entire 50-year period analyzed.”

The air quality benefits arrive much sooner than the climate benefits. They are, at least for the next several decades, much larger. They can be secured without the cooperation of other countries. And, by generating an average of $700 billion a year in avoided health and labor costs, they will more than pay for the energy transition on their own. Climate change or no climate change, it’s worth ditching fossil fuels.”

Drug overdoses were increasing before Covid-19. The pandemic made things worse.

“Even before the pandemic, there were signs that the drug overdose crisis was worsening. Preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found drug overdose deaths hit 72,000 in 2019, up almost 5 percent from nearly 69,000 in 2018. A preliminary study from researchers at Stanford, UCLA, and the Los Angeles LGBT Center found that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid more potent and dangerous than heroin, has started to spread to illegal drug markets in the West — a trend that will likely cause more overdoses.”

“The demands of social distancing have worsened social isolation, possibly leading more people to use drugs to cope. Social services and addiction treatment programs — many of which already lacked funding and rigor — have fallen to the side as the economic collapse has crushed public and private revenues, and social distancing has forced some places to close.
Meanwhile, the actions that different levels of government have taken to shore up the gaps caused by the pandemic simply haven’t been enough. As experts told me, telemedicine — while certainly helpful for many and better than nothing — simply can’t make up for being able to pick up new syringes or naloxone, the opioid overdose antidote, at the local needle exchange program.

The result: As America sees more than 166,000 Covid-19 deaths (and rising), it’s also suffering tens of thousands of drug overdose deaths due to a decades-old crisis now likely worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.”

Israel and the UAE just struck a historic peace deal. It’s a big win for Trump.

“First, it means Israel won’t — at least for now — annex parts of the West Bank, a move that would have all but shut the door on a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli-occupied West Bank is home to nearly 3 million Palestinians as well some 500,000 Jewish settlers, and would form a critical part of any future independent state of Palestine.”

“Second, this makes life a bit easier for Israel. The last peace deal it struck with an Arab country was with Jordan in 1994 (it signed one with Egypt in 1979). Now Israel can claim it has more friends in the region, possibly reducing the pressure on it regarding its relations with Palestinians.

Granted, both nations had quietly been working together in myriad areas, namely technology, for several years. But now, the countries can openly work together in key areas, mostly pressingly on a cure for the coronavirus.”

“This agreement may help the UAE do business with Israel, which in turn should help the Arab nation’s economy. Put together, this deal is mostly a win-win for the UAE: It helps itself, and reduces the risk of a calamity happening in the region.”

“Many caveats still apply, though. Among other possibilities, Israel and the UAE could hit many snags as they work on how, exactly, to normalize relations.”

South China Sea: after all its posturing, the US is struggling to build a coalition against China

“As tensions continue to mount in the waters surrounding the contested islands of the South China Sea, a US navy aircraft carrier conducted exercises in the region on August 17. This came after the Trump administration hardened the US’s longstanding neutral position on China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.
In May 1995, following China’s occupation of Mischief Reef in the South China Sea – which is also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan – the US announced that it would take “no position on the legal merits of the competing claims to sovereignty over the various islands, reefs, atolls and cays in the South China Sea”.

But the US has not remained neutral on how the multiple disputes in the region should be managed or resolved – something we’ve written about in a recent book.

In July 2020, US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, took things one step further when he stated that most of China’s claims to offshore resources in the South China Sea were unlawful. Four years after a ruling by the South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal, which found China’s claims had no basis in international law, the US has now endorsed that ruling.

Pompeo’s statement was followed a few days later by a speech from the US secretary of defense, Mark Esper, in which he accused China of “brazen disregard of international commitments”. He said China had bullied nations around the Pacific, and that its aggressive tactics in the South China Sea obstructed other countries’ rights to fishing and natural resources.”

“In contrast to Australia, south-east Asian states such as the Philippines are more reticent about working with the US to rein in China’s expansionism.

The inherent contradictions between the Trump administration’s America First strategy and the current calls for a coalition against China remain a sticking point. Trump has never attended an East Asia Summit, and his administration’s denigration of regional alliances has reduced American capacity to create a coalition of like-minded partners to support its position in the South China Sea.

Rhetorical posturing against China will not inspire regional allies to rally to America’s side while it trumpets its America First policy. A better US strategy would be to rebuild relations with democratic allies, such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and even Indonesia. But the Trump administration’s attempts to permanently harden US policy towards China, without prior consultation with the rest of the world, will make it harder to build much needed collective resilience against China’s activities in the South China Sea.”