While OSHA has never been the most robustly funded federal agency, its efforts and regulatory authority have helped prevent countless deaths, injuries and illnesses on the job. However, recent budget cuts and future budget cut proposals threaten those gains, and it’s no stretch to say that worker health and safety hang in the balance.
In a report released in late August by the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch), author Nick Schwellenbach chronicled what austerity means for OSHA and the workers it protects. To first put the issue and impacts of slashed budgets in broader context, consider OSHA’s current capacity. According to the report, OSHA conducted fewer health and safety compliance inspections in 2011 than in 1981, despite the number of workplaces doubling from 4.5 million to 9 million and the number of workers growing from about 73 million to about 129 million. In that three-decade span, the ratio of OSHA inspectors to workers fell from one per 31,000 workers to one per 62,000 workers. And of course, as with most public health endeavors, cutting oversight of health and safety doesn’t save money in the long run.
“OSHA is a tiny portion of the federal budget overall and if its resources are deployed effectively and it’s allowed to go after big problems, it could have a major positive effect in terms of saving serious money,” Schwellenbach told me. “It can more than pay for itself in terms of savings. We can either pay a modest amount now and save much more…or end up paying more in higher health and safety costs in the future.”
Unfortunately for OSHA, long-term savings aren’t as politically appealing to some as dramatic budget slashing. When the federal sequestration kicked in this past spring, it cut more than $28 million from OSHA’s fiscal year 2013 budget. According to the Center for Effective Government report, if additional budget cuts proposed by House Republicans are realized in the fiscal year 2014 budget, OSHA’s budget will shrink from its current level of about $540 million to $443 million. In addition, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) budget would decline from about $359 million to $294 million, and funding at CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health would go from $310 million to $254 million.
Schwellenbach, a senior fiscal policy analyst at the center, added that most people probably don’t realize that sequestration is much more than just a one-time event — the across-the-board cut could mean that agencies will continue to face arbitrary budget declines over the next nine years. And while OSHA has thus far been able to protect many of its most essential functions, sequestration is a “slow simmer that if continued will become very serious,” Schwellenbach said. (In discussing sequestration’s on-the-ground impact at OSHA, the report cites examples from this Pump Handle article published in June.)
At MSHA, officials faced sequestration by shifting funds out of program administration and educational work. According to the report:
Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joe Main stated in a letter, obtained by Mine Safety and Health News and shared with The Huffington Post, that states should expect reductions in MSHA grant money for mine safety. According to The Huffington Post, “officials in 49 states and the Navajo Nation are expecting their money to be cut by as much as two-thirds.” The funding is used to train miners to prevent accidents and avoid health dangers.
Furthermore, the budget cuts mean MSHA “will have to make tough choices about what positions to replace, and when,” Main wrote. “A delay or the inability to replace seasoned and highly-skilled employees who leave the agency will leave MSHA without sufficient experienced inspectors in the future.” 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,” referring to the death of 29 miners at a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia in 2010.
Schwellenbach noted that there’s no substitute for the regulatory authority of OSHA when it comes to worker health and safety — while unions and worker centers have important roles, “they just don’t have the power or embedded expertise that OSHA does.” OSHA, he says, sets the regulatory rules of the game and oftentimes, it’s the partnerships between such groups and OSHA staff that make for such effective inroads into worker health and safety. In addition, not only will workers suffer from cutbacks at OSHA, so will the responsible employers who depend on OSHA to keep the playing field level.
“If the bad actors believe they can act with impunity you might see a shift, but it could take a while to manifest itself in the data,” Schwellenbach said. “One year of sequestration may not be enough to signal to bad actors that things have changed…but if OSHA continues to operate with fewer and fewer resources, those bad actors will start to act badly more often.”
So while Congress continues its budget battles, Schwellenbach calls on worker advocates to collect the stories of OSHA’s impact and of its absence.
“We need more concrete stories of the impacts of these budget cut because right now it’s really abstract for people,” he said. “We have to be careful not to engage in fear mongering, but I think there are connections to be made and stories to be told.”
To download a full copy of “What’s At Stake: Austerity Budgets Threaten Worker Health and Safety,” click here.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.