Possible government shutdown’s effect on OSHA

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As arguments over the current year’s federal budget heat up in Washington, a deadline looms: March 4.

On that day, the previous budget agreement for fiscal year 2011 expires. To stop a government shutdown, Congress must agree on – and the president must sign – a bill continuing to fund the federal government. Without such an agreement, many agency operations simply cease. (Department and agency operations considered “essential,” such as the Department of Defense and air traffic control, would continue.)

This got me wondering: What would happen to Department of Labor agencies like OSHA? If history is any guide, it could be rough.

The most recent shutdowns occurred in the mid-’90s: One for a brief period in November 1995, and another spanning a couple weeks during December 1995 to January 1996. The end result to OSHA, at least during the first shutdown, was a near cessation of activities.

“Most of our activities protecting workers from hazards at the workplace, occupational safety and health, most of those activities will cease,” then-Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich told department managers on Nov. 14, 1995.

Reich told his staff only “imminent dangers” to life or property could be investigated. That would lead to about 95 percent of workplace safety complaints going unanswered, according to a DOL press release issued at the time. During the briefing, then-OSHA administrator Joseph Dear said the agency, at that time, received about 400-500 complaints from workers each day. Only about 200 of the 2,300 OSHA employees would still be working during the shutdown, he added.

“It is quite a trauma for my fellow workers at OSHA to walk away from their jobs and know that – except for complaints of imminent danger and fatality investigations – that they can’t protect America’s working men and women,” Dear said.

I reached out to a DOL spokesperson to learn if a government shutdown to OSHA today would resemble the one from 16 years ago, and whether or not compliance assistance operations would be affected. (I would assume they would cease, as they probably don’t cover “imminent dangers.”) I’ll update this blog when I hear back.

As it stands now, the Republican-controlled House has passed a continuing resolution bill (H.R. 1) funding the federal government for the rest of fiscal year 2011. Senate Democrats have balked at the massive spending cuts in the bill, and House Republicans said Democrats’ budget proposals don’t cut enough spending. It would seem both sides are playing chicken at this point.

March 4 is still days away, and as we saw in the waning days of the 111th Congress, our politicians do have the ability to come together to work out some of their differences under a tight deadline. Hopefully, they’ll do just that, and ensure full funding of OSHA and other essential worker protection agencies in the process.

[Updated March 2]

The threat of a shutdown has been avoided, at least temporarily. Congress approved a resolution to continue funding the government through March 18. If no new deal is reached by then, a shutdown will still occur.

However, President Barack Obama announced his desire to take a more active role in budget negotiations, and this could lead to a final bill before the deadline. As soon as I learn how OSHA’s budget will shape up for the last seven months of this fiscal year, I’ll write another blog entry.

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

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