By David Michaels

We’ve gotten news that Republicans in the House are planning to introduce a very destructive amendment to the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Bill, probably later today. This amendment will have a devastating impact on NIOSH’s research program, and it is important that we act to stop it.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) will offer an amendment to restrict NIH’s contribution to the Section 241a Public Health Service Act Evaluation Fund. This fund is the entire source of support for the NIOSH National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA) program, a highly successful public-private research partnership that was initiated in 1996. All of the funds for NORA – $88,365,000 proposed for FY 2008 in this bill – come through section 241 set-aside funds.

Unfortunately, the Barton amendment is being pushed by cancer research groups who want to increase funding for cancer research, so this promises to be a difficult fight.

But this isn’t merely an attempt to get more money for cancer research. It is a cynical way to defund occupational health and safety research. When faced with the possibility of increased public health regulation, opponents of the regulation in question cry that more research is needed. That’s just what the Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee did last month in their opposition to legislation compelling OSHA to issue a standard to protect food industry workers from the deadly artificial butter flavor chemical diacetyl. And they did it for years before that in fighting an ergonomics standard.

The best way to ensure that less research will be done is to cut off research funding. It guarantees greater scientific uncertainty, making needed public health protections more difficult to implement.

We stopped the Wicker Amendment. We can stop this one too.

Contact your Representative and tell her or him to oppose the Barton Amendment to the Labor-HHS Appropriations Bill.

Here’s some background on why the NIOSH NORA research program should not be defunded:

NIOSH’s research program is the only federal health research program directed at workplace injuries, diseases and deaths. Since 1996, the NORA program has conducted important research on major workplace hazards and diseases. Key research initiatives include preventing injuries and diseases among health care workers, protections for disaster response workers, reducing injuries from work-related violence, preventing injuries and deaths among construction workers, and assessing and reducing the risk of lung disease from silica exposures.

The current plans for the next phase of this important research program are to focus on major workplace risks by sector, with an emphasis on putting research into practice, so the knowledge we acquire can be put to actual use to prevent injuries and disease. Already work is underway to undertake an ambitious research program to address major hazards in construction, fishing and agriculture, mining, manufacturing, health care and other services.

NORA is a public-private research program with contributions being made not just by the government, but by employers and unions as well. If federal funding for this important research program is cut back, private contributions will be lost as well.

The money that is proposed for this important research program – $88.365 million – is a modest amount – particularly in comparison to the cost of occupational illnesses, injuries and deaths, which is estimated at $155 billion – $300 billion a year. The funding that is proposed amounts to about 67 cents for each worker in the United States.

In 2005 there were 5,734 workplace injury deaths, 50,000 deaths from occupational diseases and more than 4.2 million workplace injuries in the U.S. In 2006 we saw more than a doubling of coal mine fatalities in the nation’s mines.

Now is not the time to cut our investments in important health and safety research programs that are critical to our efforts to protect workers from job deaths, injuries and disease.

Note: We’re grateful to our friends at the AFL-CIO for providing much of this background.

UPDATE, 7/19: Last night, the Barton Amendment to the Labor-HHS Appropriations Bill was defeated by a vote of 181-249. All the Democrats, along with 19 Republicans, voted against the amendment.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

Comments

  1. #1 Celeste Monforton
    July 18, 2007

    We have some serious messed up priorities in our country when our lawmakers will vote on whether $88 million (0.074 percent of what we’ve spent on the war in Iraq) should be spent on research on workplace injury and illness prevention or added to cancer research. What’s happened to us?