Editorials

Editorial: Belton trench death shows need for workplace safety rules

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has drastically cut the fine it initially imposed on Arrow Plumbing for safety violations that resulted in the death of one of its workers at a Belton job site (above) two years ago and put other employees at risk weeks later.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has drastically cut the fine it initially imposed on Arrow Plumbing for safety violations that resulted in the death of one of its workers at a Belton job site (above) two years ago and put other employees at risk weeks later. File photo

D.J. Meyer of Oak Grove died in a trenching accident in Belton last December while working for Arrow Plumbing LLC of Blue Springs.

In June, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration levied more than $700,000 in fines against the company.

OSHA says the company seriously — and in some cases willfully — disregarded rules for protecting employees as they worked in trenches.

The case, which is under appeal, has angered Meyer’s family and plenty of others.

The case is “sad and infuriating,” wrote Jordan Barab, a former deputy assistant secretary of labor at OSHA.

“Being put in a position to choose between your job and your life is not a position anyone should be in,” he said.

Yet OSHA’s role in protecting workers and penalizing companies that violate workplace safety rules appears under increasing pressure from President Donald Trump’s White House and its campaign against government regulation.

Trump has yet to nominate a permanent assistant secretary for occupational safety and health. The lack of a permanent leader sends a horrible message: that worker safety is not on the president’s must-do list.

OSHA has more than 2,000 employees across the country and had a $552 million budget last year. It not only investigates workplace deaths, it provides essential training and education for employers as well.

There are also signs OSHA’s regulatory role is eroding. In late July, the National Safety Council said OSHA’s rule-making agenda has been cut in half by the Trump administration, from 30 items under review at the end of President Barack Obama’s administration to 14 items under Trump.

OSHA is now considering looser standards for beryllium dust exposure in some industries. Beryllium is a toxic substance that harmed the health of hundreds of Kansas City area workers over decades.

Workers’ rights groups are concerned. The changes “endanger (employees’) health and safety in workplaces across numerous industries,” Christine Owens, the executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement.

The Trump budget cuts spending for OSHA. The U.S. House has proposed even deeper spending cuts for the agency. The goal, Republicans say, isn’t enforcement but advice.

“By amending and eliminating regulations that are ineffective, duplicative and obsolete, the administration can promote economic growth and innovation and protect individual liberty,” the Office of Management and Budget says, referring to reducing government rules in OSHA and other departments.

There is no reference to protecting life or safety.

Yet that’s exactly what OSHA was designed to do — and it works. Since 1970, when OSHA was established, workplace deaths have been cut by two-thirds.

The White House should appoint a permanent leader for OSHA without delay. The agency should pursue an aggressive role in adopting workplace safety rules. And Congress should give OSHA the tools it needs to protect the nation’s workforce.

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