Budget cuts threaten NIOSH research centers

Occ health workforce could be affected

The budget impasse plaguing Washington may actually save the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) from some deep cuts.

President Obama’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2013 would eliminate NIOSH-funded Education and Research Centers (ERCs), which provide training for occupational health and safety professionals. The 17 ERCs are based at universities around the country.

While NIOSH supporters rally to maintain the agency’s funding, a political stalemate has resulted in funding at the same level as FY2012. Although NIOSH funding is just a blip in comparison to the large debates over deficits, revenues and taxes, supporters hope to seize the moment to highlight the importance of the agency.

“Our very serious concern is that if the NIOSH funding does not include support for the ERC, it’s going to undermine what is already an emerging problem — which is an adequate number of health and safety professionals to fill the demand that business will have for this decade and future decades,” says Jim Johnson, vice president for Workplace Safety Initiatives for the National Safety Council in Itasca, IL.

“One of the contributing factors is the fact that the current health and safety professionals are, in many cases, nearing retirement age,” he says.

In fact, a 2011 NIOSH study found that employers plan to hire at least 25,000 occupational health and safety professionals in the next five years, but only about 12,000 new graduates will be available.

The proposed cuts to the ERCs assume that universities would pick up the slack and fund the training programs. But that isn’t necessarily the case, says Johnson.

“It could mean the closure of those programs or it could mean reductions in available resources and staffing for delivery of the courses,” he says. “We’re not entirely clear at this point what the exact impact would be for each of these programs. Clearly, if they lose some of the NIOSH funding, it’s going to hamper their ability to stay in that area of degree preparation or they’re going to cut back.”

Even with the continued funding, there will be a mismatch in the supply of occupational health and safety professionals, he says.

Should NIOSH stay in CDC?

The debate over ERCs has renewed some broader concerns about support for the primary research agency for occupational health.

The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) are requesting a General Accounting Organization study on whether NIOSH should remain a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The CDC, in fulfilling its difficult mission of meeting the challenges to American’s overall health and well-being, is not in the best position to champion NIOSH’s largely separate and distinct mission of supporting protections for Americans at work,” the organizations said in a joint letter.

Concern about NIOSH’s status within CDC spiked in 2004 when CDC announced plans to place NIOSH within a “coordinating center” as part of a reorganization, a move that would have given it less autonomy. Stakeholders rallied to NIOSH’s defense and lobbied Congress on its behalf. CDC maintained the status quo.

“We still see this as a long term concern,” says Aaron K. Trippler, AIHA director of government affairs. For example, CDC takes money from the NIOSH budget for its overhead, he says.

If NIOSH moved out of CDC, there are several possibilities: It could become part of the Department of Labor, as a sister agency of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It could become another institute of the National Institutes of Health. Or it could be a stand-alone agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Most importantly, there needs to be more awareness about the important work that NIOSH does to investigate hazards and research ways to make the workplace safer, Trippler says.

“There’s a good level of support on the Hill for NIOSH and what it does,” he says. “There are also individuals who need to be educated a little more about the importance of NIOSH.”

Employers also can play a role in raising awareness about why NIOSH needs support and stable funding, Johnson says. “There is real business value at the end of the day,” he says.