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Washington Update: Competing budgets will decide OSHA’s future

April 1, 2011

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Competing OSHA budget proposals from Republicans and the White House could lead to overbearing regulations and job loss, or increased worker deaths and a hamstrung safety agency – depending on who you ask. Proposed in mid-February, the Obama administration’s plan would give a nearly $25 million boost to OSHA, while the GOP budget plan would slash $99 million from the agency’s funding.

GOP’s OSHA

OSHA’s fiscal year 2010 budget was $558.6 million, which included increases to enforcement and standards development. The budget for FY 2011 – which runs from Oct. 1, 2010, through Sept. 30, 2011 – had yet to be approved by Congress when Safety+Health went to press. Federal agencies have been operating under their FY 2010 budgets as a stop-gap measure.

Republicans proposed a continuing resolution (H.R. 1) that would fund the federal government for the rest of FY 2011. Running on a platform of reducing the federal deficit and cutting back on “job-destroying” federal regulations, Republicans have taken a machete to OSHA’s budget. The following figures represent a reduction for various OSHA programs from FY 2010 levels:

$41.3 million – federal enforcement
$34.9 million – safety and health statistics
$14.9 million – state programs
$4.2 million – technical support
$3 million – safety and health standards
$700,000 – executive direction and administration

“This legislation will help stop harmful regulations, misguided laws and over-reaching bureaucracies to allow our businesses to create jobs and our economy to thrive,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) said in a press release.

But according to Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis, these cuts could have devastating effects on workplace safety and businesses. During testimony before the House Education and the Workforce Committee on Feb. 16, Solis said the GOP budget would delay agency plans to update safety standards and lead to fewer inspections and less compliance assistance.

Promulgation of new standards would be immediately halted, she said, and whistleblower investigations would slow. Additionally, the proposed budget would reduce yearly OSHA inspections by 18,000, including 8,000 fewer inspections conducted by State Plan states. About 415 new OSHA hires could be let go, including 200 inspectors (an ironic consequence of a bill meant to save jobs).

The OSHA website – which offers agency updates and compliance assistance resources, among other items of note – would be eliminated due to a lack of funding to provide updates.

What would all these changes mean? “There may be more injuries taking place, and obviously that has a cost to business,” Solis said.

Obama’s OSHA

The House passed the GOP budget bill Feb. 19 in a nearly partisan 235-189 vote. What happens to the bill in the Senate remains to be seen, but given President Barack Obama’s FY 2012 budget proposal, it is safe to assume the Republican bill won’t come to pass as is. (At deadline, the bill remained in the Senate.)

On Feb. 14, Obama’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2011, would send OSHA funding in the opposite direction of the GOP proposal. With the nearly $25 million boost from FY 2010 levels, OSHA would provide these increases to agency programs under Obama’s proposal:

$7.8 million – federal enforcement
$6.4 million – safety and health standards
$1.5 million – state programs

House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman Rep. John Kline (R-MN) suggested the administration’s proposed budget “micromanages” workplaces and is not in the best interest of employees. Kline and other GOP members of the committee recently have been repeating the same argument: Regulations hamper economic growth and job creation.

Not surprisingly, some people object to that assertion. “The evidence is that employer implementation of OSHA standards generally costs far less than predicted and actually increases productivity,” OSHA administrator David Michaels said during a Feb. 14 webchat on the FY 2012 budget.

Like most things in Washington, not everyone will agree on everything. But a nearly $125 million difference between two proposed budgets for a small federal agency is a big gap to bridge. During a Feb. 15 House Workforce Protections Subcommittee hearing, Chairman Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) noted there must be flexibility when it comes to the approach of balancing safety concerns with economic growth to keep the momentum going forward. “Once you stop, you move backwards,” Walberg said.

With those words in mind, it is important to know the GOP proposal would do just that – send OSHA backwards, returning its budget to 2004 levels.

This was a time when there had been no update to the cranes and derricks standard, a rule that went into effect last November.

Seven years ago, the hazard communication and shipyard general working conditions standards hadn’t been proposed, and promulgation of the electrical power transmission and confined spaces in construction rules had just begun. All of these are expected to receive final rules this year.

The combustible dust standard was just a pipe dream in 2004. At that time, a scathing Chemical Safety Board report on the hazard and the Imperial Sugar disaster in Georgia were, respectively, two and four years away. OSHA hopes to issue the rule in 2012.

There will be, and should be, debates on the worthiness of proposed regulations. There should likewise be open discussions on OSHA’s budget and its allocations.

But effectively sending the agency back to 2004 – a time when 1,363 more workers died on the job than estimated in 2009 – should not be an option.

The opinions expressed in "Washington Update" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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