Washington Update

Washington Update: The final Obama budget: OSHA takes aim at congressional criticism

In the final OSHA budget request of Barack Obama’s presidency, the administration launched a pre-emptive strike against Republicans to justify the agency’s direction and agenda. Within the fiscal year 2017 budget justification for OSHA, the administration addresses several concerns raised by the Republican-led House and Senate. The concerns were brought up in reports accompanying the 2016 appropriations bills passed by both chambers, and in the omnibus funding bill that was signed into law.

This type of response from an agency to issues raised by members of Congress isn’t entirely unusual – in the past seven budget justifications, OSHA typically took one or two pages to address concerns from Congress. But the FY 2017 budget request goes into far greater detail, covering eight issues over the span of nine pages.

Specifically, OSHA takes aim at the House Appropriations Committee’s claim that the agency is over-reliant on enforcement at the expense of compliance assistance. “This approach is costly and overly burdensome on employers and ... has created an unnecessarily hostile environment between the federal government and private enterprises,” the committee said in its report.

In response, OSHA asserts that “far too many employers” cut corners and put workers at risk, necessitating an enforcement program that serves as a deterrent to scofflaws and targets dangerous workplaces. OSHA also lists all of its compliance assistance endeavors, which include the Voluntary Protection Programs and the Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program.

The hot topic of silica is also addressed. The final rule is under review by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, and issuing it before the end of Obama’s term is considered a priority. In its report, the House Appropriations Committee urges OSHA to delay promulgation of the rule, accusing the agency of underestimating compliance costs and raising concerns that current technology may not be capable of meeting the standard’s requirements. OSHA brushed those concerns aside, noting it has reviewed the evidence and is “committed to developing a silica rule that is based upon the best available evidence.”

Possibly in the hopes of laying to rest several other issues that regularly surface, OSHA responded to concerns from the House Appropriations Committee that seemingly were addressed years ago. The committee expressed apprehension about OSHA’s long-delayed Injury and Illness Prevention Program Standard – a rule that the agency noted was shelved a couple of years ago in exchange for updated guidance. Concerns that OSHA was “unilaterally” expanding its citation authority beyond legal requirements were quickly shot down when the agency noted that an employee complaint is not, as the report claims, necessary for OSHA to issue citations.

Running the numbers

Recent OSHA budgets (in millions)

2014 actual 2015 actual 2016 actual 2017 request
$552.3 $552.8 $552.8 $595

As for the budget itself, OSHA is requesting $595 million for FY 2017, which represents a $42 million increase over current-year funding. The agency seeks to increase funding for safety and health standards by $3.2 million, and beef up enforcement by nearly $18 million to about $226 million. Whistleblower protection programs would receive an additional $4 million in funding, but that is $1 million less than the funding level sought last year. However, OSHA is seeking $2 million more in compliance assistance this year than it sought last year, which would boost total compliance assistance funding to more than $143 million.

Safety and health statistics also would receive an increase, jumping to $40.1 million from $34.3 million. Funding for state programs would increase as well, to $104.3 million from the current $100.8 million.

Whether OSHA’s pre-emptive responses have any effect won’t be known for months, until committees start convening hearings and voting on appropriations bills. But given the hard-line stance Republicans in charge have taken when it comes to OSHA’s regulatory approach and the Obama administration in general, it’s hard to see any OSHA budgetary request coming to fruition this congressional term.

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

Kyle W. Morrison

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