As we creep ever closer to the prospect of a federal government shutdown due to the efforts by some conservative members of Congress to defund the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and attack implementation of our nation’s public health laws, it’s important to understand how a shutdown will impact the health and safety of workers and the public’s health.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charged with enforcing the nation’s environmental laws, carried out 19,000 inspections/evaluations of pollution-emitting facilities in 2011, or about 365 per week, to ensure that our nation’s air and water are safe. With the possible exception of emergency environmental catastrophes, those inspections would stop under a government shutdown, providing a potential holiday for polluters.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which has responsibility for ensuring worker safety and health, historically receives approximately 400-500 complaints from workers each day. In planning for the 1995 government shutdown, then-OSHA Administrator Joseph Dear projected that only about 10 percent of OSHA employees would be working, and the Department of Labor estimated that 95 percent of complaints would go unanswered. In his briefing for department managers, then-Secretary of Labor Robert Reich indicated that “most of our activities protecting workers from hazards at the workplace, occupational safety and health, most of those activities will cease,” as only “imminent dangers” to life or property could be investigated.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services, would continue to provide essential emergency public health services such as investigating existing disease outbreaks, other critical public health services could be impacted. In planning for the possibility of a government shutdown in April 2011, a CDC representative noted that while emergency health workers will continue their jobs, the staff who work to "get people out the door" by booking travel and facilitating meetings won't be working, thus potentially delaying responses to requests from states for help. CDC also indicated that the ability to provide consultations and tests to physicians dealing with complex infections and diseases “may be delayed.” Those delays could have major health consequences for the patients being treated by those physicians.

It’s ironic that the efforts to hold the government’s budget hostage to defund the ACA, which will ultimately bring millions of uninsured Americans into the nation’s health care system, could wind up seriously harming the health and safety of the American public.

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