When Jordan Barab worked for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, corporate attorneys were blunt about what worried them.
It wasn’t the agency’s paltry fines for flouting workplace safety laws. What terrified businesses, they told him, “is being mentioned in a press release.”
Companies no longer have to worry. Since President Donald Trump took office on Jan. 20, the agency hasn’t issued a press release naming and shaming the companies it fines.
And that’s where Barab comes in. A former deputy assistant secretary under President Barack Obama, he had planned to ride off into the sunset after leaving his post on Inauguration Day. Instead, he’s turned his blog into a shadow OSHA press room, publishing a list of companies slapped with significant fines from Jan. 18 through mid-February.
The list is a striking display of how the Obama and Trump administrations differ in their approach to enforcing the nation’s workplace safety laws. Under Obama, OSHA trained a spotlight on companies to try to bring them into compliance. But the recent decision not to publicize citations signals the dawn of an era in which regulators may stress voluntary compliance with safety laws instead of aggressive enforcement.
Barab said calling companies out worked. He said industry attorneys had simple advice for clients worried about bad publicity: “Well, then make sure your workplace is safe.”
Without that stick, he worries companies will lose a key motivation to keep workers out of harm‘s way. OSHA’s fines can be a limited deterrent because they are relatively modest. The maximum a company can be fined for each serious violation is $12,675 and for each willful violation, it’s $126,749. And regulators don’t have enough inspectors to visit businesses regularly.
Trump adviser Stephen Bannon has said the White House wants to dismantle what he called “the administrative state,” and Trump has pushed to roll back regulations across agencies. Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, echoed this approach when asked about his outlook on regulation during a Senate committee hearing Wednesday.
“I think it’s important that we eliminate regulations that are not serving a useful purpose because they are impeding small business,” he said.
Business groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have criticized Obama-era safety rules for impeding economic growth and the creation of new jobs, and the new administration is teaming up with Congress to repeal them. Earlier this month, Congress struck down an Obama rule that would have forced certain contractors to disclose labor violations.
In addition, Trump is expected to sign legislation that Congress recently passed that eliminates a requirement for companies to keep injury logs from the previous five years.
The chamber maintains that the push to publicize injuries wasn’t effective. “OSHA’s obsession with shaming employers has not lead (sic) to better results in workplace safety,” it said last year.
Barab’s database shows that since Trump took office, OSHA has continued to crack down on employers. The agency imposed a $99,630 fine against the U.S. Postal Service for failing to lock machines so they could be serviced and maintained. Serta Simmons Bedding, a mattress manufacturer, was fined $42,373 for a similar problem.
The records reveal that an Illinois roofer, Robert Barringer, was fined $429,417 in February for putting his workers in danger of falling, among other lapses.
OSHA repeatedly fined Barringer for endangering workers in at least a dozen other cases during the Obama administration. The difference: When the agency fined Barringer last August, it let the world know in press releases posted on its website.
“Robert Barringer has shown a callous disregard for the safety of his employees and utter indifference to the law,” stated an OSHA official in a press release. “OSHA will use every option available to us to hold him accountable for his shameless behavior.”
Reveal reporter Will Evans contributed to this story.