Political turmoil a threat to OSHA mission
Agency preserves enforcement power
Federal budget cuts and a two-week shutdown didn’t divert the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration from its focus on enforcement. But as Congress moves forward with difficult budget debates amid the specter of an even deeper automatic cut known as the "sequester," the agency ’s allies worry that diminished resources could undermine its mission of ensuring workplace safety and health.
Even before the current budget battles, OSHA had fewer inspectors than in 1981, although the number of workplaces has doubled in that timeframe,1 according to a report by the Center for Effective Government, an advocacy and research group based in Washington, DC.
In 2011, for example, OSHA conducted 140 inspections in hospitals 86 of them in response to employee complaints, 45 that targeted high-injury worksites, two due to fatalities and seven for other reasons. There are more than 5,000 hospitals in the United States.
"[OSHA’s] ability to conduct inspections is very constrained, so it’s no surprise that hospitals often don’t see an OSHA inspector," says Nick Schwellenbach, senior fiscal policy analyst at the Center for Effective Government and co-author of the report. "Many industries that are hazardous don’t receive the type of attention that they should."
With an additional 7.2% cut from the 2014 funding in another sequester, OSHA’s budget would be $531 million, close to the same amount as in the last fiscal year of the Bush Administration, Schwellenbach notes.
"At some point it becomes the new normal at the agency," says Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH, a former OSHA official who is now a lecturer in the School of Public Health & Health Services at George Washington University in Washington, DC. "If you have another sequester and it is cut further, the new normal becomes quite troubling, when you think about how little presence OSHA has in workplaces."
Not everyone sees OSHA as a toothless tiger. Employers still feel OSHA’s shift toward more aggressive enforcement under the Obama Administration, says Brad Hammock, leader of the Workplace Safety and Health practice group at Jackson Lewis law firm in Washington, DC. "Since the sequester has occurred, and even during the government shutdown, the clients I work with did not notice any change in the vigor with which OSHA is operating," he says.
Shutdown led to delays
OSHA shifted its resources in the sequester, but some OSHA efforts lagged due to the two-week federal government shutdown in October. For example, OSHA delayed its roll-out of new tools to promote voluntary compliance with lower limits of hazardous chemicals. (See related article on p. 138.)
During the shutdown, only two inspectors continued working in each of the area offices, or about one-tenth of the inspection workforce. Regional administrators and assistant regional administrators also stayed on the job, but most enforcement activities were halted.
As OSHA ramped back up in late October, Michaels said OSHA is continuing to move forward on an Injury and Illness Prevention Program, which would require employers to maintain a program to identify, prioritize and address workplace hazards. (See box on p. 137.)
Yet safety advocates have become discouraged about the prospects of new regulations from OSHA. The agency’s proposed silica rule, which sets new permissible exposure limits for respirable crystalline silica in shipyards and construction sites, was held up for more than two years in a review by the Office of Management and Budget. OSHA has estimated that the silica rule will save almost 700 lives and prevent 1,600 cases of silicosis a year.
That leads Aaron Trippler, director of government affairs for the American Industrial Hygiene Association, to wonder: Is this really the best way of doing business? "I just worry about the future of OSHA as an independent agency," he says. "They don’t have enough political power."
The anti-regulatory rhetoric is harsh in Congress and makes it difficult for the agency to move forward on more than one rule at a time, says Monforton. "You hear so much disdain for OSHA overregulating," she says. "Those arguments are very contrived and they’re not based in fact."
Training and outreach take a hit
When OSHA preserved its enforcement budget in the last sequester, that came at the cost of some other activities. The agency cut back on training, outreach and compliance assistance, but that cannot be sustained, says Schwellenbach.
"The training is of special concern because OSHA, like many federal agencies, is facing a wave of retirements among their more experienced staff," he says. "They need to recruit new people and train new people. They can’t defer training forever."
States that run their own occupational safety and health programs also have taken a hit with fewer federal dollars. They lost about $28 million in the 2013 sequester and stand to lose another $9 million in a second sequester. President Obama requested an increase in OSHA’s FY 2014 budget.
In an investigation that predated the budget cuts, the Government Accountability Office found that the 22 states that have programs that cover both public and private sector workplaces have trouble recruiting, training and retaining inspectors.2
Meanwhile, the federal portion of state-plan funding has decreased over the years, according to a 2012 report by the Occupational Safety and Health State Plan Association.3
"We have some state plans that have done some remarkable work," says Mark Catlin, health and safety director for the Service Employees International Union. "Those states now will be getting less money."
Hope in the states?
In fact, states have been the catalyst for greater regulation of occupational health and safety. For example, California’s needlestick prevention law became a model in 1998, as it required employers to provide safety-engineered devices. Other states followed suit, and in 2000, the federal Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act became law.
Currently, 10 states have laws that promote or require safe patient handling, and nine states have laws related to workplace violence prevention. California’s Aerosol Transmissible Diseases standard was cited as a model when OSHA announced it would consider drafting an infectious diseases standard.
"The infectious diseases standard would be a groundbreaking standard to protect health care workers," Catlin says. It is listed on OSHA’s 2013 regulatory agenda in the "pre-rule" stage, but OSHA has not issued a draft.
As state and federal regulators become further constrained by budget cuts and political pressure, Catlin encourages union locals to push for protections in their collective bargaining agreements. For example, unions have gained contract language establishing workplace violence prevention programs in hospitals.
Trippler of AIHA says he hopes states will continue to take the lead in improving occupational safety and health. As for federal OSHA, he sees diminished impact.
"When you look at the future, I think we have a weakened agency," he says. "OSHA used to be recognized worldwide for occupational safety and health, and I don’t think it is anymore."
- Schwellenbach N. What’s at stake: Austerity budgets threaten worker health and safety. Center for Effective Government: Washington, DC, 2013. Available at www.foreffectivegov.org/files/budget/whatsatstake-workersafety.pdf.
- U.S. Government Accountability Office. Workplace Safety and Health: OSHA can better respond to state-run programs facing challenges. GAO 13-320, Washington, DC, April 2013. Available at www.gao.gov/assets/660/653799.pdf.
- Occupational Safety and Health State Plan Association. 2012 Special Report: Impact and funding of state occupational safety and health programs. Available at www.oshspa.org/Files/2012-special-report-impact-funding.pdf.