What's At Stake: Austerity Budgets Threaten Worker Health and Safety
August 29, 2013
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is tasked with ensuring that every working man and woman in America has "safe and healthful working conditions." Established in 1970 under Nixon's "new federalism," and housed in the Department of Labor, its enforcement staff comes from both federal and state agencies. The agencies responsible for worker health and safety have never been well funded, and with their budgets shrinking, their ability to achieve their mission is increasingly at risk. New cuts are likely to result in more unsafe workplaces, more accidents and injuries, and higher costs for business and society down the road.
- OSHA had fewer health and safety compliance inspections staff in 2011 than in 1981, the first year of the Reagan administration, even though the number of workplaces doubled to 9 million from 4.5 million establishments, and the number of workers rose to 129.4 million from 73.4 million. The ratio of inspectors per workplace fell by half, to one inspector per 4,300 workplaces from one per 1,900 workplaces over that 30-year time period; the ratio of inspectors to workers fell to one per 62,000 workers in 2011 from one per 31,000 workers in 1981. Federal OSHA inspectors – at current staffing and workloads – would need 131 years to inspect every workplace in America.
- Even before the FY 2013 sequester's impact, House Republicans had achieved their goal of rolling "back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels" in the worker safety and health budget. And House Republicans are proposing deeper cuts in FY 2014 federal spending for the appropriations bill that funds OSHA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
- If sequestration hits again in FY 2014, and it reduces budgets by another 7.2 percent across the president's proposed budget levels, OSHA's budget would be $531 million, MSHA's would be $353 million, and NIOSH's would be $305 million.
OSHA is already feeling the impacts of sequestration cuts, though it is trying to protect its most essential functions. Many of the impacts of the budget cuts in FY 2013 were related to training, outreach, and travel associated with those efforts. A year of skimping on training is manageable, but a longer period of inadequate professional development will have more serious consequences. Similarly, reductions in outreach efforts will have more serious effects over a longer period of time. And even the president's budget plan projects a four percent drop overall in the number of inspections in FY 2014 from 2013 levels.
The deeper cuts proposed by the House would lead to an even sharper reduction in inspections and other health and safety activities at OSHA. Squeezing the agency's budget through harsher cuts would curtail the training of new inspectors and reduce their ability to keep up with emerging hazards. Over the next several years, OSHA is projected to lose a significant percentage of its existing workforce as safety and health inspectors and whistleblower investigators reach retirement age.
- Already, federal OSHA and its state counterparts have too few resources to regularly inspect all worksites and rely on worker complaints to identify the most dangerous establishments. This can only be effective if an employee who requests an inspection of his or her worksite is protected against retaliatory actions (discharge) from his or her employer. But charges of retaliation are increasing, and OSHA no longer completes its investigations within the statutory deadline of 90 days. In 2012, each OSHA investigator was handling about 26 cases, and each took up to 286 days to close.
- About half the states run their own enforcement and compliance programs, and federal OSHA provided about 50 percent of state program costs. But as their costs increased, the federal government has not been able to provide this level of support. And states are cutting their own health and safety funds. According to the Occupational Safety and Health State Plan Association, if this trend continues, we should expect to see reduced enforcement and outreach and smaller reductions in injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. If states are unable to maintain a program at least as effective as federal OSHA (a mandatory requirement for State Plan Programs), federal OSHA must take over complaince and enforcement functions. The inability to cost-share with state plans could generate even greater pressure on federal OSHA and further undermine its ability to ensure "safe and healthful working conditions" for American workers.
The budget forecasts for MSHA and NIOSH are equally dire. Funding for MSHA was increased years ago and has remained mostly stable, and the president's budget seeks to continue to protect miners. Yet sequestration cuts could have a significant impact on the agency and the miners it safeguards. MSHA grant money, used to train miners to prevent accidents and avoid health dangers, could be cut by as much as two-thirds. Budget cuts mean MSHA "will have to make tough choices about what positions to replace, and when," said agency head Joseph Main. A lack of adequate and competent staff at MSHA would take it to "the same position [the agency] was in during the months leading up to the Upper Big Branch tragedy," which resulted in the death of 29 miners at a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia in 2010.
The Obama administration is offering up deep cuts to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health despite the fact that NIOSH already saw its budget fall about 20 percent from FY 2008 through FY 2012. Further cuts will undermine NIOSH's mission of identifying workplace health risks and threats from toxins and proposing safter, affordable alternative substances and processes. NIOSH's recommendations have reduced injuries and deaths, improved the longterm health of workers, and saved states and employers significant worker compensation costs. The CDC has proposed that NIOSH eliminate its research on the agriculture, forestry, and fishery sector, even though these industries have the highest fatality rates.
The modest increase in OSHA's budget from the early years of the Obama administration have already been lost, and the agencies dedicated to protecting the health and safety of workers are increasingly challenged to achieve the missions they were created to serve. Further budgetary contractions would cripple their ability to provide adequate oversight of our nation's workplaces. If this system of public protections is further cut in the years to come, the nation's health and welfare will be increasingly put at risk.