But almost two years in, the Trump administration has done the opposite, rolling back worker safety protections affecting underground mine safety inspections, offshore oil rigs and line speeds in meat processing plants, among others.
One of those Supreme Court nominees, Brett Kavanaugh, will on Tuesday begin Senate confirmation hearings, where Judiciary Committee Democrats will almost certainly quiz him about dissenting opinions in which he denied undocumented workers had the right to bargain collectively and that San Diego’s Sea World bore responsibility for a deadly attack on one of its employees by a killer whale.
“When you look at core worker protections and union rights, the administration and the president have been totally anti-worker,” said Peg Seminario, director of occupational safety and health for the AFL-CIO.
Deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters said in a written statement that the administration “is committed to protecting health and safety on the job while respecting the right of Americans to make their own decisions. Too often in the past, agencies issued regulations that constricted the freedom of American workers and small business owners to work in the best way.”
At an August campaign rally in Charleston, W.Va., the president said, “We are back. The coal industry is back.” Whether coal mining jobs are on the rebound is a matter of some dispute. But there’s no question that the Trump administration has taken steps to roll back mining safety regulations.
Trump’s mine safety chief, David Zatezalo, is a former coal executive who as recently as 2011 was cited by the agency he now leads for a pattern of safety violations. When Zatezalo was president and CEO at Rhino Resources, a West Virginia miner was killed when a portion of a rock wall collapsed. The accident occurred after Rhino already had been cited for one worker safety violation, and before it received a second.
Zatzelo, at his confirmation hearing, told senators that “the management of that particular group and that particular site was not doing what they should have been doing.”
Under the Obama administration, inspections had to occur before workers began their shifts — to scale away, for instance, loose pieces of rock that might fall on them. But in April, the Zatezalo-led Mine Safety and Health Administration said it would allow inspections to begin while miners were already at work. The change was first proposed two months before Zatezalo was confirmed.
“These additional amendments provide mine operators additional flexibility in managing their safety and health programs and reduces regulatory burdens without reducing the protections afforded miners,” MSHA wrote in the final rule.