Proposed budget could stretch OSHA thinner

In a recent interview with staff from OSHA Region 5, I was told the geography of the upper Midwest and budget constraints can make it difficult to effectively enforce regulations and provide compliance assistance.

“We’re stretched for resources even on our best days, not withstanding travel,” Regional Administrator Mike Connors said.

In Illinois, for instance, only one area office is outside a major metropolitan area. The Peoria office has upwards of 80 counties in its jurisdiction, and travel times to an inspection site can take up to five hours. And when OSHA inspectors from one of these smaller offices have to perform a group inspection – at a large facility, for example – it could effectively leave the office empty.

And it’s not only inspections. Compliance assistance officers also have to travel miles and miles of corn- and soy-lined roads to arrive at a site to provide help. Travel isn’t cheap, and time even less so.

The area offices in Region 5 do what they can, given their restraints, by streamlining inspections and compliance assistance events, but there’s no denying more resources could help. (Read the June issue of Safety+Health for a profile on Region 5.)

Obviously, it’s rare to find a government agency that isn’t asking for more money or resources to do its job better. But money allocated to OSHA – the agency tasked with ensuring the lives and health of virtually every working person in this country are protected – is a pittance of the larger federal budget. At $558.6 million, OSHA’s 2010 budget was only 0.1 percent of that year’s $537 billion federal non-defense discretionary funding.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)Under the 2012 budget proposal (.pdf file) from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), government agencies would have their funding reduced to below 2008 funding levels. As a result, newly hired OSHA staff could be fired, assistance initiatives could be scaled back and much-needed rules could be delayed.

As I’ve previously suggested, reducing OSHA’s budget to funding levels of previous years effectively sends the agency back in time, when more on-the-job injuries and deaths occurred.

Money alone won’t solve problems or ensure workers are kept safe. However, I find it hard to believe an OSHA office with hundreds or thousands of worksites in its jurisdiction would benefit from having fewer inspectors to go after recalcitrant employers and fewer compliance assistance officers to provide requested help.

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

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