Washington Update: Request for ‘stable funding’ is telling

The last-minute deal reached before the new year to avert the “fiscal cliff” spared taxpayers some increased rates, but it postponed another sure-to-be-fierce fiscal fight – the 2013 budget.

Technically, the government’s 2013 fiscal year began Oct. 1, 2012, but after failing to secure an agreement for the entire fiscal year, Congress passed a stopgap measure funding many federal agencies at FY 2012 levels through March 27, 2013. Lawmakers now have to decide how to fund agencies and departments for the remainder of FY 2013 (through Sept. 30).

Both the Senate and House have proposals that would appropriate funding for several safety agencies, including OSHA and NIOSH. However, the Republican-controlled House version differs significantly from the Democrat-controlled Senate version.

In the Senate, both OSHA and NIOSH would maintain their funding levels from the FY 2012 budget at $565.5 million and $292.6 million, respectively. The House version would fund OSHA at $560 million and NIOSH at $280.1 million.

Although the differences in dollars may not be much, the cuts in the House version would lead to the elimination of several programs and restrict which standards OSHA can pursue and enforce. These discrepancies have caught the attention of three workplace safety advocacy organizations.

In November, the American Industrial Hygiene Association, the American Society of Safety Engineers and the National Safety Council (which publishes Safety+Health) sent a letter (.pdf file) to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) – chair of the Appropriations Committee’s Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee – urging him to maintain FY 2012 funding levels for both OSHA and NIOSH, and for the appropriations bill not to include the restrictive House provisions.

“Efforts to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses will be jeopardized if funding levels are reduced for OSHA and NIOSH,” the organizations said in a joint press release.

The groups called these provisions “troubling.” OSHA would be prevented from promulgating an Injury and Illness Prevention Program Standard, as well as from enforcing its Grain Handling Standard and its residential construction fall protection directive. Additionally, the Susan Harwood Training Grant Program would be eliminated.

On the NIOSH side of the House proposal, a program geared toward research and evidence-based safety standards for the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector – which has the highest fatality rate of any industry – would be eliminated, as would the institute’s Education and Research Centers, which educates safety and health professionals. (President Barack Obama’s budget request also eliminated funding for both the ERCs and the AgFF program.)

Nothing is a done deal yet, as the Senate and House must resolve the differences between their respective budget plans.

Reading between the lines

It is noteworthy that three major workplace safety organizations would come together to voice support for two safety agencies. But equally noteworthy is that the three groups are calling for “stable funding” – not an increase.

NIOSH seems to be continually cash-strapped and threatened just about every year with huge slashes to its budget. Being the only federal agency tasked with researching and making recommendations regarding occupational injury and illness prevention, this should be an agency in which to invest more funding.

Likewise, it can be argued that OSHA has been underfunded. The ratio of OSHA personnel to workers in the United States has declined over the past 40 years, and the agency recently has seemed incapable of moving forward on more than one final rule at a time.

The three groups calling for maintaining funding is more of a reflection of the times than anything else. Given the nation’s economic conditions and how arguments over federal spending in recent years have grown bitter, it’s sad to say the best-case scenario for the government’s dedication to workplace safety seems to be staying the course instead of greater investment.

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

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