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What The Grenfell Fire Could Teach Trump

The Trump administration has been loosening health and safety regulations since Day One.

28/06/2017 12:20 AM AEST | Updated 28/06/2017 12:21 AM AEST

WASHINGTON ― At least 79 people died in London's Grenfell Tower this month, in an inferno that safety experts have blamed largely on the cheap, flammable cladding used to wrap the high-rise apartment building.

"Those who mock health and safety, regulations and red tape need to take a hard look at the consequences of cutting these and ask themselves whether Grenfell Tower is a price worth paying," London Mayor Sidiq Khan wrote last week in an op-ed on the disaster.

Khan may as well have been writing for an American audience.

Since assuming office in January, President Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress have led an assault on the regulatory state. They have dismantled health and safety rules, frozen others before they can be implemented, and taken steps to assure that new ones won't be pursued — all in the name of unshackling businesses and spurring job growth.

Trump is right that health and safety regulations often come at a financial cost for businesses. When the government orders coal companies to protect miners against black lung disease, for example, those companies have to invest in new equipment and training, and put more safety controls in place. That costs coal operators money up front. But everyone saves money on the back end, when thousands of miners don't die preventable deaths and tax our health system in the process.

Before the Grenfell Tower disaster, British regulators apparently made the calculation that the financial cost of safer building designs outweighed the potential fire dangers. Unlike other European countries, the British government allowed developers to swathe entire high-rises in combustible cladding, even though experts warned against the hazards. Over the years, politicians from both the Labour and Conservative parties also helped loosen fire-safety regulations at the urging of builders.

Trump and congressional Republicans are making similar calculations here. Before the Grenfell fire, successive British governments "adopted slogans calling for the elimination of at least one regulation for each new one that was imposed," The New York Times reported Saturday. In one of his very first acts as president, Trump went further, mandating that federal agencies abolish two regulations for each new one.

Peter Nicholls / Reuters
Damage to Grenfell Tower is seen following the catastrophic fire, in north Kensington, London, Britain, June 25, 2017.

Working in tandem with the new White House, Republicans repeatedly used an arcane legislative tool called the Congressional Review Act to scuttle more than a dozen regulations issued late in the Obama presidency. The rules tightened restrictions on coal companies that dump waste in streams; blocked federal contracts from going to dangerous employers; and required companies to keep better track of their employees' injuries.

Trump has gone so far as to propose abolishing the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the federal watchdog tasked with investigating disasters like the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion in 2013, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

No administration issues major new regulations lightly. Any rule that's going to have a significant economic impact undergoes extensive study, laying out the projected costs against benefits to the public. This process typically takes years and sometimes even decades, with heavy lobbying by industry groups. Consider one of the public health regulations delayed by the Trump administration: the silica rule.

When construction workers cut rock and granite, they're exposed to a carcinogen called silica dust. Breathing too much of it leads to respiratory disease and lung cancer. Scientists have been saying for four decades that the U.S. regulations on silica dust are too weak. The Obama administration finally tightened them last year, but in a boon to the sand and granite lobbies, the Trump administration announced that it would delay enforcing them. Backers of the rule are now concerned it will be watered down or scrapped entirely.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has estimated that the rule would save 600 lives each year, with a net benefit of $7.7 billion annually, due to savings on health care and productivity. Tom Ward, a bricklayer whose father died from silicosis, recently told HuffPost that it breaks his heart to know the disease is "100-percent preventable," but the new regulations still aren't fully in place.

"It may be too late for me and my generation," Ward said.

When it comes to fire safety, the Trump administration is limited if it wants to pare back regulations, since they're mostly enforced on the local level. But even on this issue, Trump has made his feelings clear. While on the campaign trail last year, he explicitly complained about fire codes, which limit room occupancy to prevent mass deaths. He claimed Democratic fire marshals were unfairly enforcing the codes against his campaign out of political motivation.

"This is why our country doesn't work," Trump said at a July event in Colorado Springs, Colorado. "We have a fire marshal that said, 'Oh, we can't allow more people.' It really is so unfair to the people. I'm so sorry. I have to apologize. But it's not my fault."

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