by Kim Krisberg
Every Tuesday night, the Austin-based Workers Defense Project welcomes standing room-only crowds to its Workers in Action meetings. During the weekly gatherings, low-wage, primarily Hispanic workers learn about their wage and safety rights, file and work on wage theft complaints, and organize for workplace justice.
Once a month, a representative from the local OSHA office would join the Tuesday meeting, giving some of Texas’ most vulnerable workers the chance to meet face-to-face with the agency charged with protecting their health and safety on the job. Unfortunately, due to the federal sequester, OSHA has had to indefinitely suspend its attendance at the meetings, said Jason Cato, workforce development coordinator at Workers Defense Project. It’s a significant loss.
OSHA’s meeting participation often led to critical interactions, Cato told me. Even though Hispanic workers bear a disproportionate burden of workplace injuries and fatalities (recent federal statistics found fatal work injuries increased among Hispanic workers in 2011), a number of barriers may prevent workers from speaking up or filing complaints. But when vulnerable workers meet OSHA reps within the walls of an organization they know and trust, such as Workers Defense Project, it makes a real difference.
“We’ve had years of experience building up trust and organizing in the community,” Cato said. “OSHA has structural barriers to doing that effectively…and so when OSHA comes to us, it allows (the agency) to educate and reach more and more people and follow up on complaints.”
Since February, when OSHA personnel had to stop attending the meetings, Cato said there’s been a decrease in complaints filed between workers at Workers Defense Project and the Austin-area OSHA office as well as a decease in communication between the two organizations — and it’s not because there are fewer violations to complain about. He noted that OSHA’s presence at the meetings allowed workers to interface directly with OSHA and file complaints, which meant Workers Defense Project could direct more of its limited resources toward issues that OSHA doesn’t regulate, such as wage theft. Cato said OSHA’s absence has affected the project’s capacity to deal with workplace hazards.
In addition to the Tuesday meetings, OSHA reps also used to travel to and attend worker safety trainings that the project conducts around Texas. Cato said OSHA’s participation brought with it valuable feedback and assistance. However, sequestration has put a stop to those activities as well, he reported.
“(Sequestration has) had a really big impact on our work and it’s something we experience as a big loss in our service capacity for workers,” he said. “We’ll always be here to help workers carry out complaints and to offer trainings…but it’s the bigger context of how effective OSHA can be nationally and in Texas that’s the real question.”
Sequestration and OSHA: Is the worst yet to come?
Because members of Congress failed to come to an agreement on federal budget cuts, sequestration officially kicked in this past March, enacting billions of dollars in automatic cuts across federal agencies. Neither need nor effectiveness factor in when it comes to sequestration — everyone not specifically exempted in legislation (e.g., Medicaid and veterans’ benefits) got hit. As of today, the sequester represents a 10-year plan to cut $1 trillion in federal spending. At OSHA, sequestration meant a cut of more than $28 million in its fiscal year 2013 budget.
The run-up to sequestration came with dire warnings from advocates and community-based organizations and, indeed, many important programs, such Meals on Wheels and Head Start, are feeling immediate pain from Congress’ inaction. (More examples of sequestration effects are chronicled in this ProPublica piece.) At OSHA, it seems the impact of sequestration has so far been somewhat minimal; however, some advocates say that — maybe — it’s just that the worst has yet come.
According to reports from a meeting of the American Industrial Hygiene Conference & Exposition in late May, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, David Michaels, said this about sequestration: “It’s a huge loss for us. We made the decision when the sequester came down to do everything we could not to furlough our staff. The consequence is that we have to cut everything else.” Michaels said OSHA had to cut back on travel and compliance assistance, such as within the Voluntary Protection Programs, but not on enforcement activities.
Aaron Trippler, director of government affairs at the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), has noticed the travel cuts. At last year’s AIHA annual conference, upwards of 75 OSHA personnel were able to attend; at this year’s conference, only about nine were in attendance, he said. (He also noted that the conference usually attracts about 100 or so officers from the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corp, but this year he didn’t spot an officer in attendance.) The drop doesn’t seem like a big deal on its face, but it does take a toll on professional workforce development and on the ongoing dialogue between OSHA staff and workplace health and safety professionals in the field, Trippler said.
In terms of the Voluntary Protection Programs, in which employers are recognized for comprehensive safety and health systems, Trippler said compliance assistance cutbacks at OSHA could result in fewer workplaces participating.
“But as far as occupational health and safety and OSHA, I don’t think we’ve seen the full impact of what might take place down the road,” Trippler told me. “What I’m really concerned about is future sequestration because unless something is done, that’s about another $100 billion in cuts (across federal agencies in the fiscal year 2014 budget).”
Trippler said that so far, he isn’t hearing many complaints from the field that can be directly linked to sequestration — mainly it seems that the sequester is simply exacerbating existing issues in the field, such as a cumbersome and drawn-out rulemaking process. On a positive note, he said the less-than-rosy budget outlook is an opportunity for health and safety professionals to get creative — “surely there’s someone out in this profession who can say ‘here’s what we can do to fill the void.'”
“Still, Congress has to step up to the plate, they can’t allow another sequestration to go through across the board,” Trippler said. “I don’t think we can cut back on occupational health and safety anymore than we already have.”
Other groups and advocates involved in OSHA activities are reporting similar perspectives to Trippler’s — that right now, the impacts of sequester aren’t catastrophic, but they’re bracing for the other shoe to drop.
Reports from the field
Laurie Montanus, director of communications at Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC), told me that members aren’t reporting any problems as of yet. However, they will likely feel it in the long-term when OSHA inspectors begin retiring and budget cuts prevent the agency from filling vacant positions. Many IEC members take part in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs, she said, but they need inspectors to certify their participation.
“If there’s fewer number of inspectors to do the same amount of work, it will make it easier for the bad apples to slip through the cracks,” Montanus told me.
Charlie Ayers, president and CEO of the Coordinating Committee for Automotive Repair, a nonprofit that provides safety, pollution prevention and hazmat training for the motor vehicle industry, said he’s “cautiously optimistic.” His organization is a member of the OSHA Alliance Program and he reports that the collaborative relationship they’ve built with OSHA hasn’t yet been affected due to sequestration.
“I can’t really say that we’ve had any difficulties or issues so far,” Ayers told me, “But (our partnership with OSHA) is so very, very important. Keeping our industry safe, clean and green is what we’re all about and having OSHA backing is crucial to our vision, our mission and our goals.”
On the labor side, Peg Seminario, safety and health director at AFL-CIO, noted that many worker centers and Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) groups receive funding via OSHA’s Susan Harwood Training Grant Program, which bring critical education and training to under-served and low-literacy workers in high-risk industries. And Seminario said the next round of Susan Harwood grants could be significantly impacted by sequestration.
She also noted that current cutbacks in OSHA’s travel budget are impacting “basic outreach on health and safety…it can be very problematic because what’s so important is having people come together to share strategies, to come to agreements on problems…you really do lose the feel and the dynamic of when people can come together in person to do that.”
Catherine Singley, senior policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group in the country, told me that one the organization’s “top priorities is to draw attention to the high Latino (workplace) fatality rate and the factors that drive death on the job for Latinos.” National Council of La Raza participates in the OSHA Alliance Program and works to connect its local affiliates with OSHA personnel and regional offices. Singley said she hasn’t heard from affiliates about any “palpable changes” due to sequestration.
“But we are very concerned about the enforcement and compliance front,” Singley said. “Cuts in OSHA personnel means fewer eyes in the field, fewer inspections in the workplace and frankly, fewer people manning the hotline when there are dangerous conditions for workers to report. …The more urgent and immediate consequences (of sequestration) is the exit of OSHA inspectors from the workplace.”
The question of sequestration’s impact is a topic that National COSH is also trying to answer, said Tom O’Connor, the group’s executive director. So far, there’s little definitive data, he said, but “we’re hearing rumblings.”
“I’ve been sort of surprised not to hear about more problems,” O’Connor told me. “My impression, so far, is that it’s not had a big impact.”
However, he noted that sequestration has had a clear effect on OSHA staff travel, which “impacts OSHA’s ability to have good, strong relations with the community.” Right now, O’Connor said sequestration seems to be exacerbating a long-standing underfunding of OSHA.
“It started out bad and now it’s going in the wrong direction,” he said. “As the economy is expanding and more people are going back to work and a lot of those people are working particularly hazardous jobs, that’s when there’s a need for OSHA to be out there policing work sites. So the timing is unfortunate.”
In Maine, Peter Crockett, director of the Maine Labor Group on Health, reports that the sequestration-related hiring freeze means the state is down from 11 to eight compliance officers. So far, he told me, compliance inspections are running at a normal pace; however, Maine’s construction season is just ramping up and so OSHA’s ability to keep up remains to be seen. Right now, Crockett and his colleagues are sitting tight.
“It’s almost like we can still see the storm clouds,” Crockett said. “But it hasn’t started hailing on us yet.”
(Repeated requests into the Department of Labor’s media relations office to comment for this article went unanswered.)
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.