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Washington Update: OSHA’s budget plan: Consolidate, cut

May 1, 2012

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Belt-tightening continues in Washington, as the Obama administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget request (.pdf file) provides OSHA with only a modest funding increase.

“Because of the severe budget constraints we’re facing throughout the federal government, we are tightening our belts in a number of areas and we had to choose among many priorities,” OSHA administrator David Michaels said in a webchat Feb. 13, the day his agency’s proposed budget was released.

Under President Barack Obama’s plan, OSHA would receive a $680,000 boost over the current year, for a total of $565.5 million in funding in FY 2013. It’s not exactly a notable increase, but it marks the first time in at least 10 years that a presidential budget request for OSHA is lower than the previous year’s request. (See table.)

Obama’s first budget request for OSHA, in FY 2010, was a more than $50 million increase from the previous year’s enacted budget and a more than $60 million increase from his predecessor’s request for FY 2009. The requested increases for the next two fiscal years were $12 million and $8 million.

The lower budget request for FY 2013 is evidence of this being an election year in which deficit reduction has become a main talking point, and of the budget battles that have occurred over the past couple of years.

Cuts and consolidations

Despite OSHA’s seemingly plateaued budget, under the FY 2013 proposal, the agency would attempt to prioritize certain areas and increase funding for them, Michaels noted. Doing so would mean cutting and consolidating other programs.

The agency’s limited funds seem to be pointed more toward helping employees and small businesses than assisting larger employers – and shifting the emphasis to one means shifting resources away from the other.

“OSHA is maintaining its emphasis on reaching out to vulnerable and hard-to-reach workers in high-risk jobs, as well as small businesses,” Michaels said. “The cuts outlined in our FY 2013 budget request focus primarily on employer compliance assistance.”

Specifically, OSHA is looking to decrease funding for federal compliance assistance by $3.2 million and reduce the number of full-time compliance assistance officers by 33. Michaels said this would help “save money and streamline resources” by having compliance assistance staff cover larger areas.

As a result, OSHA no longer will be offering corporate or merit statuses for new Voluntary Protection Program sites, and will not be able to carry out as many partnerships and alliances with employers.

The agency also is toying with the idea of restructuring and consolidating its regions from the current 10 regions to seven. It would possibly combine:

  • Regions 1 (Boston) and 2 (New York)
  • Regions 7 (Kansas City, MO) and 8 (Denver)
  • Regions 9 (San Francisco) and 10 (Seattle)

“In an attempt to save money, we are proposing to streamline agency operations in the regions similar to other government agencies,” Michaels said.

The consolidation would not affect worker safety and health, the OSHA chief said, and regional offices would be maintained “as needed.” Michaels added that several area offices are close to one another, suggesting it would be easy for a compliance assistance officer in one office to assist another office.

Hopefully this will only be a cosmetic change, which Michaels alluded to. During a series of profiles featured last year in Safety+Health on the 10 OSHA regions, many regional administrators commented on the difficulty in having their employees – both inspectors and compliance assistance officers – cover large geographical areas. A reduction in the number of officers on the ground will not make things easier.

Priorities

These cuts would allow state-run free onsite consultation services for small businesses to keep their $57.9 million funding for FY 2013 – maintaining services’ $3.2 million increase received in FY 2012 from the previous year. Funding for the popular Susan Harwood Training Grant Program also would maintain its current funding level at $10.7 million.

Another area looking for a funding increase is the Whistleblower Protection Program. This program – which has been inundated with backlogs – would see a $4.9 million increase. OSHA has been focusing more on whistleblower protection, recently moving the program to report directly to Michaels and giving it its own budget line item in the FY 2012 budget.

It remains to be seen how many of these suggested moves will become law. History has shown Congress is willing to drastically change a president’s budget proposal for OSHA, and this time likely will be no different. Whether that means more money and fewer cuts and consolidation – or less money and more cuts and consolidation – is anyone’s guess.

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

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