Washington Update

Washington Update: The sequester’s effect on OSHA

It was never supposed to happen.

In late 2011, a bill was signed into law providing an incentive for legislators to reach across the aisle and come to an agreement on how to reduce the deficit. If no agreement was reached, the bill would implement across-the-board cuts to both military funding and discretionary funding, which covers government agencies such as OSHA.

The cuts were known as sequestration, and lawmakers believed the nature of the cuts was so indiscriminate that both Democrats and Republicans would be against them. But no deal was reached and, on March 1, the sequester went into effect.

OSHA, which is operating on a budget of about $565 million, could see its funding slashed up to 8 percent, dropping its budget to no more than $537 million for the rest of fiscal year 2013.

Before the sequester occurred, the Obama administration warned that it could lead to OSHA inspectors being pulled off the job. “This would mean roughly 1,200 fewer inspections of the nation’s most dangerous workplaces, which would leave workers unprotected and could lead to an increase in worker fatality and injury rates,” a Feb. 8 White House press release said.

But that may not come to pass.

“I really don’t see much of an impact this year,” Aaron Trippler told Safety+Health. “They may have to cut back on some inspections, consultations … but I believe they will try and find other areas first.”

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Trippler, the director of government affairs for the American Industrial Hygiene Association, speculated that some of the areas OSHA could cut from its budget may include travel, new programs, hiring and bonuses. This is supported by February comments from then-Acting Secretary of Labor Seth Harris, who warned staff of possible cuts.

(An OSHA representative was unable to respond to questions about the sequester’s effect on the agency before S+H went to press.)

Although the sequester could be overturned at any moment with an agreement among the parties in Congress and the president, Trippler said he thought the sequester would likely stay in place for agencies such as OSHA through the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Not everyone agrees that the sequester will have a minimal impact, however. “I think it’s going to be very significant,” said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO. “It means you’re not hiring, not filling positions, not doing travel, not starting any new initiatives.”

Essentially, by taking millions of dollars out of OSHA’s budget, the agency will be inhibited from moving forward, she said.

Funding for FY 2014, which begins Oct. 1, brings a whole new set of challenges. If no new deficit reduction plan is introduced to take the place of the sequester, it will continue for 10 years. Although agencies such as OSHA could continue to see increases to its budget, those increases will be about 8 percent less because of the sequester.

Potentially making matters worse are upcoming budget fights. Republicans want to cut government agencies’ funding across the board for the next decade, while Democrats are looking to “soften the blow” of the sequester, Trippler said. One such attempt of the latter – a Democrat-sponsored amendment to provide OSHA with an additional $4 million this fiscal year – recently failed to garner the necessary 60 votes to pass.

The gulf between the two political parties that led to the recent sequester will exist during FY 2014 budget debates, and history does not seem to provide much hope. In the past six years, Congress has passed continuing resolutions that have effectively frozen OSHA’s budget three separate times.

Lawmakers never intended the sequester to happen and, similarly, employers never intend for workplace deaths and injuries to occur. Here’s hoping Congress and the president can come together to ensure the nation’s agency responsible for ensuring safe and healthy workplaces can continue to be appropriately funded.

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

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