OSHA enforcement despite sequester

Cuts to travel, bonuses but no furloughs

The federal budget sequestration may have led to delayed flights and canceled White House tours, but by mid-April, the belt-tightening had not had an obvious impact on the main function of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration — enforcement.

OSHA canceled all non-essential travel, new hiring, and performance bonuses, but has managed to keep its priority on enforcement, according to occupational health and safety experts.

“This is a democratic administration. If there’s one thing they’ve wanted to do, it’s more enforcement,” says Aaron Trippler, director of government affairs for the American Industrial Hygiene Association in Washington, DC.

“If you’re going to see cuts, I think it will be on the compliance assistance side,” he says. “They may cut back on training. I don’t think they’re going to cut back on enforcement at all.”

An OSHA letter to employees indicated that the agency will avoid furloughs, according to reports: “While there is little to call ‘good news’ with respect to the sequester, I am pleased to say that by reprogramming funds we have been able to identify sufficient reductions — while still being able to support our priorities and mission — to take the required budget reductions without furloughing OSHA staff,” said an excerpt of the letter published on the online site of the magazine, Government Executive.

The Obama Administration had previously warned that sequestration could lead to a reduction of 1,200 inspections. “The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) could have to pull its inspectors off the job for some period of time ... which would leave workers unprotected and could lead to an increase in worker fatality and injury rates,” the White House said in a February “Fact Sheet: Examples of How the Sequester Would Impact Middle Class Families, Jobs and Economic Security.”

In fact, OSHA could use the sequester as a rationale for re-directing money away from compliance assistance toward enforcement, suggests Bill Borwegen, MPH, safety and health director of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

“This really should be an opportunity for them to review the amount of money they allocate to providing assistance to some of the largest, more profitable companies with the best safety records — [such as] all of their VPP [Voluntary Protection Program] programs,” he says. “They need to spend more of their time and energy — and they would have much more impact — if they went after workplaces that receive few OSHA inspections, which includes a huge percentage of the health care industry.”

President Obama’s proposed budget for FY 2014 would give OSHA $507.5 million, a slight increase. It would provide an increase in standards development and whistleblower funds and a decrease in technical support and compliance assistance.

The budget includes a reorganization of OSHA’s regional offices to save $1.3 million. The plan would combine Regions 1 (Boston) and 2 (New York); Regions 7 (Kansas City) and 8 (Denver) and Regions (San Francisco) and 10 (Seattle).

The House and Senate have very different budget resolutions, with differing perspectives on revenue increases and budget cuts. A stalemate could mean another sequester in the fall for FY 2014 of $109 billion.