Trump Reduced Workplace Safety Enforcement — Then Workers Died While Begging for Help

New data shows that COVID-19–related deaths followed after workers requested help from federal safety officials. Instead of helping, Donald Trump reduced enforcement of workplace safety laws.

Donald Trump removes his mask upon return to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on October 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

To help their corporate donors boost profits and stock prices, Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers have pushed hard to force workers back into unsafe workplaces. During the pandemic, the GOP has brushed off science and reopened economies, demanded liability shields for employers, ended special pandemic unemployment relief, helped Amazon block a worker safety initiative, and encouraged states to punish workers who don’t return to their jobs.

For those forced back to COVID-19–infected workplaces, the Trump administration has weakened the agency that is supposed to be policing workplace safety. And now a new study shows the results: death rates spiked almost immediately after workers pleaded with that agency to help, but were likely ignored.

The analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data comes from researchers at Harvard, Boston Children’s Hospital, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. It shows that “there is a correlation between OSHA complaints and COVID-19 mortality” — in specific, COVID-19–related complaints to the agency “are correlated with [COVID-19–related] deaths 17 days later.”

During the pandemic, researchers note that OSHA “has not issued any emergency or permanent standard specific to COVID-19 exposure at the workplace” and “had issued only four citations related to COVID-19.”

Meanwhile, the report notes that “the total number of federal OSHA inspections (of any kind) during 2020 has been reduced by two-thirds, compared to the same period in prior years.”

This graph shows how OSHA complaints almost perfectly reflected waves of coronavirus deaths. The graph tells the tragic story of workers crying out to OSHA for help, then being ignored, then dying:

A graph showing the correlation between national OSHA complaints and COVID-19 deaths per million.

“The Lowest Number of Inspectors in the Agency’s 48-Year History”

The situation at OSHA isn’t some random accident, and it isn’t just an agency hamstrung by the pandemic. It is the result of deliberate policy decisions.

A 2019 report from the National Employment Law Project found that workplace fatalities have hit a decade-high just as Trump has presided over a decline in OSHA enforcement activity. OSHA “now has the lowest number of health and safety inspectors in the agency’s 48-year history,” according to the study.

A 2020 report from the Center for Public Integrity found that OSHA has conducted fewer safety inspections under Trump than under Obama, even though the nation’s workforce has increased. That report also found that during the pandemic, OSHA inspections have dropped by roughly two-thirds.

At the same time, ProPublica reports that the Trump administration has “mothballed or outright killed” the Labor Department advisory boards that were created “to improve health, safety and whistleblower protections in nearly every facet of the workforce.”

Trump Reduces Deterrents to Unsafe Workplaces

These policy decisions have together reduced a key deterrent to corporate misbehavior.

For instance, the threat of a workplace inspection often incentivizes employers to adhere to safety standards. A 2012 study of California work sites found that “randomly inspected employers experienced a 9.4% decline in injury rates and a 26% reduction in injury cost” — and “no evidence that these improvements came at the expense of employment, sales, credit ratings, or firm survival.”

The Trump administration’s reduction in those inspections likely results in the opposite effect.

Similarly, the threat of big fines tells corporations that if they violate safety standards, they could face financial punishment. Under Trump, though, those fines have been minuscule during the pandemic, even as death rates have skyrocketed.

With OSHA failing to issue mandatory safety standards, “the agency hasn’t proposed a single penalty greater than $30,000 for coronavirus-related risks,” reports Politico.

In one instance that has prompted protests, OSHA fined meatpacking giant JBS just $15,000 after 290 workers were infected with the virus.

Workers Are Collateral Damage in Republicans’ Effort To Enrich GOP Donors

None of this makes any sense if the goal is protecting workers — but all of it makes sense if the goal instead is to protect the corporations that bankroll the Republican Party.

That is clearly the GOP’s top objective regardless of how many people are killed in the process — and you can even see it in the Supreme Court situation. Trump and Senate Republicans are right now trying to force lawmakers and congressional staff into the COVID-19 hot zone exploding in the US Capitol in order to try to install another corporate rubber stamp on the Supreme Court, which would ultimately boost corporate profits and crush workers.

Horrifying as that sociopathic plan is, it is merely a microcosm of the GOP’s larger project: their entire agenda is designed to force workers into unsafe workplaces in order to help their corporate donors.

Those donors want a right-wing Supreme Court, and they don’t care how many federal workers are killed to make that happen.

Similarly, they want an entire American workforce that is legally barred from suing employers, financially punished for refusing to return to unsafe workplaces, and unable to call the workplace cops when lives are put in danger.

In short, corporate interests want a legal system that turns workers into collateral damage in the quest for profit — and that’s exactly what the GOP is giving them.