OSHA Drops Fatality Data, Science Suppression Tracker and More

February 7, 2018

WatchDog: OSHA Drops Fatality Data, Science Suppression Tracker and More

By Joseph A. Davis, WatchDog TipSheet Editor

1. OSHA Deep-Sixes On-the-Job Fatality Data
2. New Tool: Science Suppression Tracker
3. GAP Publishes Journalists’ Guide to Working with Whistleblowers
4. House “Science” Committee Chair Wants Scientists out of Environmental Health Policy



1. OSHA Deep-Sixes On-the-Job Fatality Data

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration used to publish on its website a list of U.S. workers who died on the job. No more. Within days of a new Trump pick taking top office in August, much of it was gone.

OSHA fatality statistics matter to environmental reporters because the deaths sometimes result from exposure to toxic substances or other environmental hazards. For example, the toxic solvent methylene chloride is subject to EPA’s risk assessment program. It has also killed workers who use it.

During the Obama administration, OSHA published the fullest possible list of worker fatalities and related data. In August 2017, shortly after the Trump administration installed Loren Sweatt on a political appointment to a top leadership slot, OSHA started cutting back the worker fatality information it automatically published. That cutback had been requested by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Under the Trump data regime, workplace fatalities are listed only if the incident resulted in a citation (which causes a listing delay of about six months) and the workers’ names are not included. Moreover, OSHA only lists fatalities in states where OSHA oversees workplace safety (about half of the states do this for themselves). OSHA publishes the more limited listing of worker fatality information in a less prominent place on its website.

OSHA under Trump has also cut way back on issuing press releases noting OSHA enforcement actions.

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2. New Tool: Science Suppression Tracker

The Trump administration is removing climate science from government websites faster than most of us can follow. What is a journalist to do?

Well, now a new tool, the “Silencing Science Tracker,” has been put online by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.You can search it in real time. Or get email updates.

The website, sponsored jointly with the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, goes beyond just the suppression of climate science to include other kinds of science. It tracks “government attempts to restrict or prohibit scientific research, education or discussion, or the publication or use of scientific information, since the November 2016 election.”

Another way of tracking the science suppression, at least on climate, is via the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative. EDGI put out the latest in a series of reports on Trump administration climate data censorship in early January.

Scientists who hope for funding or support for their research project, however, have been trying not to use words like “science-based” in their proposals — much less the c-word (that’s “climate” — apparently “resilience” is OK). The Washington Post in December published a list of words (may require subscription) that supposedly were not to be used in Centers for Disease Control budget requests. Don’t say “evidence-based.” CDC vehemently denied it.

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3. GAP Publishes Journalists’ Guide to Working with Whistleblowers

Investigative journalists can hurt their anonymous sources even though they don’t mean to. Now the Government Accountability Project has published “Working with Whistleblowers: A Guide for Journalists.”

You may remember the case of Reality Winner (may require subscription), a government contractor who was arrested in June 2017 and charged with leaking a classified report on Russian meddling with U.S. elections prepared by the National Security Agency. The investigative outlet The Intercept had published the document, saying it came from an anonymous source. It later emerged that the alleged leaker might have been outed by coded printer dots — the sort of thing most gumshoes know nothing about.

In any case, investigative reporters owe a lot to both their sources and their audiences. The report from GAP, which has been working with whistleblowers for decades, can help them work competently.

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4. House “Science” Committee Chair Wants Scientists out of Environmental Health Policy

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Director Linda Birnbaum, who is under fire pressure for calling for science-based policy decisions on toxic chemicals.

Federal environmental health official Linda Birnbaum is under fire after calling for science-based policy decisions on toxic chemicals. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If you are a respected scientist running an environmental health science agency, you had better keep your mouth shut about protecting people’s health.

That, at least, is the signal from Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chair of the House Science Committee. He has called for an investigation of Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. She wrote an editorial in the journal PLOS Biology calling for science-based policy decisions on toxic chemicals.

Smith wants the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate whether that amounts to illegal “lobbying.” The Anti-Lobbying Act prohibits government employees from using federal money to advocate legislation. (Nonetheless Congress regularly demands that top federal officials appear before it and give opinions on pending or proposed legislation.)

Birnbaum was not paid in federal money for her editorial, which did not advocate any legislation. A past president of the Society of Toxicology, she has authored more than 600 peer-reviewed publications.

Smith, a climate change denier, has made a name for himself attacking climate science agencies during his tenure, and has taken significant amounts of campaign money from Koch Industries.

There is no word yet from the DHHS inspector general’s office about whether they will investigate.

The story was broken by Sharon Lerner in The Intercept.

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* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 6. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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