Washington Update

Washington Update: Ensuring safety education and research

NIOSH plays a huge role in workplace safety and health. The agency’s research into hazards and abatement methods provides a solid foundation for OSHA in its promulgation of rules, and leads to important education for safety and health professionals.

Two popular NIOSH programs in particular do just that. The agency has 18 Education and Research Centers that are university-based and feature NIOSH-supported academic degree programs in industrial hygiene, occupational health nursing, occupational medicine and occupational safety. These ERCs received nearly $29 million in funding in fiscal year 2016.

The NIOSH Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Program researches hazards in that industry, and seeks to develop solutions to help prevent work-related injuries and illnesses. For the current fiscal year, AgFF received $25 million in funding.

In the requested budget for FY 2017, the White House proposed to reduce funding for both the ERCs and the AgFF programs – by 100 percent.

The current administration asserts that both programs have outgrown their usefulness in a time of limited resources, and has attempted to defund the programs for years. In a FY 2013 “Cuts, Consolidations and Savings” report published by the White House Office of Management and Budget, the administration described the ERCs and the AgFF Program as “lower priority.”

In fact, the programs’ success may have contributed to their low-priority status in the eyes of the White House. The FY 2017 budget states that the reach and impact of ERCs has “grown substantially” and helped to increase an awareness of the importance of specializing in occupational safety and health. In a sense, the administration is saying that the program’s job is done.

Program support

Not everyone is happy with these proposed funding cuts. In an April 4 letter sent to House and Senate labor appropriations subcommittee leaders, a group of safety and health advocacy organizations called on lawmakers to maintain current funding levels – at a minimum – for both OSHA and NIOSH. Included in that would be the ERCs and the AgFF programs.

The organizations, including the American Industrial Hygiene Association, the American Society of Safety Engineers and the National Safety Council, stressed how important both programs are in helping to protect workers.

“With an aging OSH workforce, and a critical shortage of these qualified professionals, ERCs are essential to educating the next generation of experts,” the letter states.

The organizations also pointed to the dangerous working environments that exist in the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting industry as evidence of the need for the AgFF Program. About 330 industry workers are seriously injured every day, and the industry’s fatality rate is 8 times greater than the all-industry average.

The programs have strong support on Capitol Hill as well. Every year that the Obama administration has proposed eliminating the programs from the budget, funding has been restored by Congress.

The upcoming fiscal year’s budget is no different. Forty-seven House members and 18 senators from both parties signed a March 24 letter to congressional labor appropriations leaders requesting continued funding for the ERCs and the AgFF programs. The ERCs provide training and resources to every region in the United States, the letter states, and the AgFF Program is the “only substantive federal program working to ensure safe working conditions for 5.5 million workers in some of our nation’s most dangerous and important production sectors.”

“We urge you to recognize the important contribution of NIOSH, including the ERCs and the [AgFF] Program to the health and productivity of our nation’s workforce by including at least level funding for these programs,” the letter states.

Given the programs’ strong support from advocacy groups and both sides of the political aisle, it’s likely [their] future will be secured.

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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