Even More Health and Safety Impacts of the Government Shutdown: Why You Should Care
by Ronald White, 10/15/2013
Because the scope of health and safety protections provided by the federal government is vast, it’s easy to not fully appreciate the impacts of a government shutdown on our daily lives. Early into the current shutdown, I blogged about some of the less obvious potential health and safety impacts that could be affected by lack of government oversight. An Oct. 11 report prepared by the majority staff of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation highlights several other areas where the government shutdown has potentially put the public’s health and safety at risk.
The report, prepared for committee chair Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), notes that 95 percent of workers at the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) have been furloughed, including employees who work on hazard identification and reduction, compliance and field operations, and import surveillance. As a result, all product safety investigations, civil penalty negotiations, and enforcement proceedings or recalls that do not meet the threshold of involving a “substantial and immediate threat to the safety of human life” have stopped.
All CPSC port inspectors have been furloughed, preventing the CPSC from screening products coming into ports of entry. CPSC port inspectors annually screen thousands of product shipments and prevent millions of products that are dangerous or violate government requirements from reaching store shelves, items such as children’s products containing excessive amounts of lead and children’s sleepwear that violate flammability standards. With fewer than 25 staff at work nationwide, CPSC has virtually no resources to monitor, sample, and conduct activities, such as enforcing lead standards and ensuring that other dangerous products don’t reach consumers. The CPSC is also not updating its publicly accessible website, Saferproducts.gov, which each month typically receives over 100,000 visits and publishes over 1,000 reports of harm and potential harm.
At the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), over half of the safety inspectors who review airline operations and aircraft manufacturing facilities − approximately 1,700 of them – have been furloughed, raising concerns about the potential decline in airline safety oversight.
All but four of the 337 members of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) who work on vehicle safety programs have been furloughed, including all of the agency's accident investigators. The agency is also not reviewing any safety data submitted during the time of the shutdown. This includes regular reports from vehicle manufacturers, consumer complaints, and reports from manufacturers regarding potential defects, some of which can endanger the safety of vehicle owner and passengers. As a result, NHTSA cannot influence manufacturers’ recall processes to ensure that vehicle owners are alerted to potential safety defects. In addition, all safety defect investigations that were open at the time of the shutdown are on hold.
Ninety-four percent of the staff at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been furloughed, severely limiting the accident investigation capabilities of the Board. While a few investigations have been started since the shutdown began, the limited staff resources have not allowed for investigation of the most recent accidents. Further, NTSB has been forced to suspend a number of accident investigations, which will delay critical findings on accident causes and delay safety recommendations.
As we begin the third week of the government shutdown, the loss of these and other government health and safety programs highlights the important contributions of these efforts to our nation’s safety and well-being.