Congressional budget proposals slash OSHA funding, push back on silica exposure standard: ‘These cuts and these riders are unconscionable’

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is no stranger to budget cuts — the agency is already so underfunded that it would take its inspectors nearly a century, on average, to visit every U.S. workplace at least once. In some states, it would take two centuries. Unfortunately, appropriations bills now making their way through Congress don’t bode much better for OSHA.

Earlier this month, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) and Public Citizen, along with 74 fellow organizations that care about worker health and safety, sent a letter to President Barack Obama calling on him to reject proposed funding cuts to OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). As of August, versions of fiscal year 2016 appropriations bills in both the House and Senate would fund OSHA and MSHA at levels lower than their enacted budgets for fiscal year 2015. Here’s the exact breakdown: The Senate bill (S. 1695) would cut MSHA funding by about $19 million and OSHA funding by nearly $28 million; the House bill (H.R. 3020) would cut MSHA funding by nearly $5 million and OSHA funding by $18 million. In his fiscal year 2016 budget proposal, Obama had recommended increasing funding for both agencies.

Mary Vogel, executive director of National COSH, told me that considering the current make-up of Congress, she and her colleagues had anticipated that OSHA and MSHA would face some budget cuts, but not to the extent that policy-makers are currently proposing.

“On the ground, (such cuts) would mean less money devoted to compliance, to enforcement and to compliance assistance,” she said. “Common sense tells us that if workplaces aren’t inspected, that additional violations will occur. I think it’s fair to assume that many workplaces would not be as safe if OSHA had to cut back funding and that workers would be impacted. We need OSHA out there to make sure employers are compliant with the law.”

In addition to proposed funding cuts, the appropriations bills contain some unfortunate policy riders as well — measures the National COSH/Public Citizen-led letter describe as “poison pills.” The Senate appropriations bill contains a rider that would block the use of funds to promulgate or implement regulations relating to occupational exposure to silica until additional studies and reports are completed. The House bill doesn’t propose the same prohibition, but does include language that would encourage OSHA to delay a new silica standard until more study is completed.

However, as occupational health and safety advocates well know, the dangers of occupational silica exposure as well as ways to protect workers from exposure have been known and studied for decades. In fact, Vogel mentioned a video produced by the U.S. Department in Labor in 1938 titled “Stop Silicosis” and that offered ways workers could protect themselves from the dangerous dust. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 1.7 million workers are exposed to respirable silica in a variety of industries, such as mining, construction and sandblasting. Silica exposure can result in silicosis and other irreversible, disabling and fatal lung diseases.) OSHA’s been trying to update its silica exposure standard for decades, but continues to face considerable opposition from industry.

“This isn’t rocket science,” Vogel said, referring to ways to prevent hazardous silica exposure and silicosis. “Yet Republicans want further and further studies. We don’t need more studies; we need to get the standard out there.”

Another poison pill — this one contained in the House bill — would prohibit OSHA inspectors from implementing any agency policy that allows third parties to accompany OSHA officers on an inspection without a vote of approval by employees. Third parties are currently allowed to accompany an OSHA officer, with the officer’s permission, however a vote of the full workforce isn’t required. Vogel said the arrangement can add significant value to an inspection, as workers are much more familiar with their workplaces than an OSHA representative. However, if enacted, the House bill rider would make it considerably harder for workers at a site without a collective bargaining agreement to secure a role in health and safety oversight. As Vogel noted, organizing a vote among all employees in a workplace is not a small endeavor.

Yet another poison pill — this one is also in the House bill — would de-fund OSHA’s Susan Harwood Training Grant Program, which provides grants to nonprofit organizations to train workers and employers on safe and healthy workplaces. In particular, the grant program targets workers who might not otherwise receive safety training and who work in vulnerable and high-hazard industries. The Senate appropriations bill does not de-fund the Susan Harwood program.

For decades, the grant program has supported organizations in building the capacity to reach underserved workers. National COSH is a Susan Harwood grant recipient — it uses the funding to award subgrants to local COSH groups, which then go out into their communities to educate vulnerable and hard-to-reach workers. National COSH and its partners reach thousands of workers every year.

“Our local affiliates would try to find a way to continue (if Harwood funding was eliminated), but it would be difficult,” Vogel said.

At the Workers Defense Project in Austin, Texas, Harwood grant funds make it possible to train hundreds of workers every year in basic construction safety — it’s training that many workers wouldn’t otherwise have access to, said Emily Timm, director of research and policy at Workers Defense Project, which has about 4,500 members statewide and assists some of the state’s most at-risk and vulnerable workers in staying safe on the job, recovering stolen wages and much more. Without the “essential” grant funding, Timm said the worker center would likely have to cut back on its training services.

Timm also noted that because federal OSHA is underfunded to begin with, Harwood grants are critical in creating and sustaining training capacity outside of the agency.

“Because the agency itself has to depend on its partners to interface with workers because of its limited capacity, taking away (Harwood) funds would only further constrain OSHA’s ability to reach workers,” Timm told me.

Federal OSHA is a critical resource for Timm and the Workers Defense Project, as Texas has no state agency devoted to occupational health and safety. The state is also home to some of the worst occupational fatality rates in the nation. In fact, Timm said the effects of underfunding OSHA are already impacting Texas workers. For example, the local OSHA office in Austin doesn’t currently have a Spanish-speaking investigator, which is a significant barrier in a state with a large Spanish-speaking workforce. (Timm told me about a woman who wanted to report a workplace safety concern to OSHA. However, without the help of a Spanish-speaking advocate at Workers Defense Project who could translate for her, she would have been left with few — if no — options.)

“Worker advocates will do their best to step in (if OSHA’s budget is cut even more), but ultimately complaints have to be handled by a regulatory agency,” Timm said. “The legal authority lies with the agency, so we really need that agency to have the capacity to keep workers safe on the job.”

Vogel at National COSH said she and colleagues are calling on Obama to veto the OSHA and MSHA cuts if they make it to the White House. However — as is becoming the norm recently — it’s unlikely Congress will pass an appropriations bill before the end of the current fiscal year. In that scenario, Congress would pass a continuing resolution, which would continue to fund the government and the proposed OSHA and MSHA cuts as well as the “poison pill” riders wouldn’t go into effect. Still, Vogel said the proposed budgets send a “regulatory message” and she called on worker advocates to use the National COSH/Public Citizen letter as a template to voice their own opposition to making even further cuts to worker safety. In particular, she and other worker safety advocates are calling on OSHA to issue an updated silica exposure standard before Obama leaves office.

“As far as we’re concerned, this isn’t a dead issue even if a continuing resolution is passed,” Vogel said. “These cuts and these riders are unconscionable.”

To read the full letter to President Obama on OSHA and MSHA cuts, visit National COSH.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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