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2014 State of Safety

How do budget cuts and federal government shutdowns affect OSHA’s role in workplace safety?

January 1, 2014

Key points

  • Occupational injury rates are at an all-time low, and fatalities in 2012 were the second lowest on record.
  • Enforcement and federal standards that employers must comply with have played an important role in reducing injuries and illnesses, some stakeholders say.
  • Budget cuts and government shutdowns negatively affect OSHA, which in turn increases the risk of people geting injured or killed on the job, some safety experts suggest.

Declining injuries, illnesses and fatalities have long been a trend in occupational safety and health. Occasional bumps in the road occur – on-the-job deaths increase slightly from one year to the next, or injury rates do not fall. But over the long-term, the result is clear: Workplaces are becoming safer.

The people and organizations responsible for this trend are a mixed group. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez acknowledged as much in a statement following the release of Bureau of Labor Statistics preliminary data that showed fatal work injuries declined in 2012.

“It is a testament to the hard work of employers, unions, health and safety professionals, and the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Mine Safety and Health Administration,” he said in the statement, issued Aug. 22. “Through collaborative education and outreach efforts, and effective law enforcement, these numbers indicate that we are absolutely moving in the right direction.”

But the ability of the federal government to create safer workplaces may be threatened. The recent automatic spending cuts known as sequestration reduced OSHA’s budget by about 5 percent. Disagreements over how to fund the federal government have led to more than two years of no increased funding for the agency. And the federal government shutdown in October 2013 – also due to disagreements on funding – resulted in the majority of OSHA operations ceasing altogether for 16 days.

The current budgetary uncertainty is a big issue, according to Joe Van Houten, senior director of worldwide EHS at Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, NJ.

“It’s very difficult for an agency to plan a series of proactive, preventative activities when the funding for those activities could be discontinued at any time,” Van Houten said.

But do such activities have a substantial impact on workplace safety? OSHA was established more than 40 years ago, and the safety landscape has changed greatly since then. Can the agency continue to take partial credit for reductions in injuries and illnesses, and does it still have a major role to play?


Evolving role

According to Van Houten, OSHA remains relevant. The agency, along with NIOSH, is one of the government leaders in occupational safety and health, he said.

Butch Tongate agreed. Tongate is the deputy secretary for the New Mexico Environment Department. Look at the statistics, he said, and you will see injuries and fatalities have been on a downward trend almost every year since OSHA’s inception. (See “The ongoing trend”)

“If OSHA wasn’t around, you would see those trends start going back up,” Tongate said.

A major reason for the downward trend, some stakeholders claim, is the enforcement side of OSHA as well as standards the agency sets to keep workers safe. Van Houten pointed to the Bloodborne Pathogens Standard and the Hazard Communication Standard as examples.

“These are things I’ve personally experienced come into existence,” he said of the two standards, which were first published in 1991 and 1994, respectively. “I know they certainly set the stage for really strong processes for preventing injuries in the workplace.”

Van Houten said standards in other areas, including foundries and construction, also have gone “a long way” toward protecting workers.

Since the 1980s and 1990s, however, the agency has issued fewer standards. Part of this is because the standards-setting process has become prolonged, Van Houten said, and part of it is because the “low-hanging fruit” has been picked.

As a result, OSHA’s role has evolved, he said – the agency now can focus its resources on egregious violators and emerging issues.

OSHA has shifted from a pure enforcement role to one that includes compliance assistance, according to John Newquist, an Illinois-based consultant and former OSHA assistant regional administrator.


Thirty years ago, employers were not provided with education, Newquist said. Instead, they were given citations and had to figure out how to comply. Now, OSHA provides employers with ideas on how to correct hazards. “I think that’s a very positive role, and that didn’t exist in 1983,” Newquist said. “That kind of interchange and information is important.”

Interacting with employers and collaborating with them and the business community is a crucial part of what OSHA does, said Amanda Wood, director of labor and employment policy at the Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers.

“Our No. 1 priority is to have a safe and healthy workplace, and I think the government’s and OSHA’s role for that is to work collaboratively with businesses,” Wood said. However, she claims OSHA is straying from that role, as evidenced by the issuance of what she called “unnecessary rules and regulations.”

When OSHA fulfills its role of working collaboratively with employers and industries, it helps ensure employers are not faced with an undue burden in complying with new standards and furthers the goal of worker safety, said Matthew Lavoie, a National Association of Manufacturers spokesperson.

“OSHA has played a very important role in worker safety, but it’s important to note their successes come alongside businesses’, manufacturers’ efforts – not overriding them,” Lavoie said.

Budget cuts

Many of OSHA’s compliance assistance programs, as well as its ability to work collaboratively with businesses, may be compromised in today’s budgetary climate, in which cuts have hit the agency’s bottom line. And more could be on the way.

“It doesn’t help that collaborative partnership,” Wood said. “If you’ve got cuts here and there, you’re not going to be able to reach the appropriate people to have those efforts continue in a meaningful way.”

Any enforcement agency is hurt by budget cuts, according to Newquist, and cuts to OSHA affect its ability to perform outreach. The alliances and partnerships the agency maintains require travel, and travel dollars may not be available under budget reductions, he said.

When the 2013 sequester went into effect, OSHA had to cut $28 million from its overall budget. In an effort to maintain funding for its enforcement programs, the administration opted to reduce compliance assistance funding by $14.8 million – $11 million more than the 5 percent sequester cut would have removed. To some stakeholders, this was a controversial move.

Newquist called compliance assistance “an important component,” adding that the agency should have sought an equal balance between it and enforcement.

In contrast, Van Houten asserted that dollars needed to be shifted to enforcement because ensuring egregious violators are held accountable is one of the principal reasons OSHA exists. If OSHA does not do it, he said, no one else will.

Although federal OSHA is able to shift its money around amid funding cuts, State Plan programs are not as fortunate. Instead of receiving a lump sum, OSHA State Plans are given money specifically earmarked for enforcement or for consultation, according to Tongate, who chairs the Occupational Safety and Health State Plan Association.

“We try to address as many workplaces as we can,” Tongate said. “With budget cuts, that number’s going to be lower than what it would be if we were fully funded.”

Additionally, he said that when State Plan budgets are cut, state programs cannot provide as much training to compliance officers or consultants as they would like. So both quantity and quality are affected.

Budget shortfalls go beyond the recent sequester. Although OSHA has received more generous increases to its budget under President Barack Obama than during the previous administration, the past two years saw funding for the agency remain static because of the passage of continuing resolutions – meaning Congress could not agree on a new budget, so it simply approved the funding levels from previous years.

“I think OSHA does a good job with the resources they have,” Newquist said. “They would probably do better if they had more money, but that’s everybody.”

Can OSHA be effective despite budget cuts? Newquist thinks so. Even with the cuts and reductions the agency has dealt with so far, OSHA is capable of tackling emerging issues, he said, noting recent efforts the agency has made regarding the safety of temporary workers.

Not everyone is as optimistic. Tongate suggested that any cuts to OSHA – and subsequently to the State Plan programs – will hurt worker safety. Without a strong enforcement program, he said, the number of employers who do not take responsibility for providing a safe work environment could grow.

“It’s hard to put a number on the impact, but obviously things that the OSHA programs across the country do is to protect workers,” Tongate said. “When you cut back on programs that we enforce and implement, it’s going to have an impact.”


Effects of the shutdown

Budget cuts were pushed to the extreme in October 2013. During the past couple of years, shutdowns were averted by an agreement and continuing resolution to keep the federal government running.

However, no last-minute save occurred this past Sept. 30, when the government’s fiscal year ended. When no agreement was reached, the federal government underwent a partial shutdown in which “non-essential” services ceased operations for 16 days. The vast majority of OSHA operations stopped. Routine inspections were not conducted, and the agency responded only to imminent hazards, deaths and catastrophes.

Newquist is convinced workers got hurt because of the shutdown. “OSHA sometimes is the only thing between death on the job and safety,” he said. “For every hazard, you’re going to have so many injuries, and those injuries could have been prevented if OSHA was out there.”

Consultation services also stopped during the shutdown. This severely affected the State Plan states, which receive up to 90 percent of their consultation funding from the federal government.

“When people are asking for help and you can’t provide it, that’s concerning,” Tongate said.

Fortunately, Tongate said, state agencies will be able to catch up on the missed inspections – and New Mexico, at least, will be able to make up the missed consultation visits.

Van Houten was less sure federal OSHA would be able to tackle its 16-day backlog of inspections. “There was a three-week period they were shut down, they didn’t get those inspections done, and there’s no way to replace them,” Van Houten said.

The shutdown and ongoing fights about the debt ceiling take away the opportunity to address pro-growth policies, according to the National Association of Manufacturers, which asserts such policies benefit employers and employees.

“Those types of things aren’t good for anybody. It’s not good to have those types of activities or conflicts going on,” Wood said, regarding the shutdown and sequestration. While an agreement was reached between Congress and the president to end the shutdown, it is short-lived. The current continuing resolution only funds the government through Jan. 15, 2014. If a funding agreement is not reached by that date, another government shutdown will occur. At press time, a bipartisan budget agreement had passed the House and awaited a vote in the Senate, but specific department funding levels were not yet agreed on.

The ongoing trend

Occupational deaths and injuries continued their downward trend in 2012, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Preliminary figures showed 4,383 fatal work injuries occurred in 2012, with 3.2 injury deaths per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers. This is a drop from the 2011 finalized figures of 4,693 and a rate of 3.5.

This is the second lowest preliminary total since the BLS Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries began in 1992. Typically, the preliminary figure is revised upward between 2 and 5 percent.

Nonfatal injury and illness rates hit an all-time low in 2012, with BLS data reporting a rate of 3.4 injuries or illnesses per 100 full-time workers. With the exception of 2010 to 2011, nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses have been declining every year for a decade.

The rate of nonfatal injuries and illnesses requiring days away from work also decreased in 2012 – 112 per 10,000 ?full-time private, state and local government workers, down from 117 in 2011.

Some stakeholders have attributed the downward trend of fatal and nonfatal workplace injuries to OSHA’s impact. According to John Newquist, an Illinois-based consultant and former OSHA assistant regional administrator, on-the-job deaths were on the rise before OSHA was instituted.

“I don’t think that trend would have stopped going up if there wasn’t an OSHA,” he said.

Other stakeholders are less inclined to give OSHA so much credit for the decrease in occupational fatalities, injuries and illnesses. Although the agency has played a role, so have employers, according to Amanda Wood, director of labor and employment policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.

“I think those numbers show business’s commitment to a safe workplace,” Wood said.