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The government shutdown and how it will affect safety

October 2, 2013

For the past five years, I’ve had the privilege of hosting Safety+Health’s OSHA Top 10 presentation at the National Safety Council Congress & Expo, presented annually by a high-ranking OSHA official. This year was different.

Although I still presented the Top 10 figures, no OSHA official was on stage with me because of the government shutdown.

Very briefly, here is what has occurred:

The Senate and House were unable to agree on how to fund the government for fiscal year 2014. As the federal government’s fiscal year for 2013 ended at midnight, Sept. 30, this means agencies such as OSHA essentially have no funding. They are unable to attend events such as the Congress & Expo because they have no money to get here.

This government shutdown presents a broader problem than simply government officials being unable to attend speeches.

OSHA has 2,300 full-time employees. Under a contingency plan drafted in late September by OSHA administrator David Michaels, that staffing level reduces to 236 employees (nationwide) in the event of a shutdown. Compared to Monday, 10 percent fewer OSHA personnel are on the job. The vast majority of OSHA activity has stopped.

The headline you may take away from this is: OSHA ceases inspections.

However, I encourage you to look beyond that headline.

It's true: Most OSHA enforcement activities have stopped with the only exceptions being responses to fatalities, catastrophes and complaints regarding employees potentially exposed to hazardous conditions presenting high risk of death or serious physical harm.

But these are not the majority of cases in which employees get injured. Until the shutdown ends, roughly 95 percent of whistleblower complaints to OSHA will go unanswered.

This shutdown affects more than enforcement activities, too. OSHA’s compliance assistance will be similarly affected. OSHA’s in-person educational expertise on how to better protect your employees from injuries and death is now unavailable.

Other government agencies also are shutting down. The Mine Safety and Health Administration has likewise reduced its staff. And NIOSH is impacted, too. These are scientists who pursue the best methods and technologies to keep workers safe. And they can’t do their job.

Now, there may be disagreement on the role of government or whether OSHA helps businesses. I don’t wish to get into those debates right now. Instead, I want to look at it from another angle.

Currently, thousands of dedicated safety professionals who have made it their life’s mission to protect people from getting injured or killed on the job are not able to go into work.

Regardless of your view of the government or OSHA, that is a large segment of this safety community now missing. I think that’s something worth keeping in mind.

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

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