Government Shutdown Cripples Workplace Health and Safety Organizations

government furlough

Now about a week old, the government shutdown continues to put stress on the country, with an end that does not appear to be in the near future. The Republicans and Democrats are equally hard headed and, it seems, playing the blame game. The furloughs, national park shutdowns and protests have graced the headlines of newspapers for days, but what does the shutdown mean for the occupational health and safety industry?

For one, the furloughs are immense. According to the Oct. 7 "Happenings on the Hill" newsletter from Aaron Trippler, government affairs director of the American Industrial Hygiene Association, OSHA furloughed 90 percent of its employees. Only 230 of its 2,235 staff members were declared "essential enough" to work. According to Bloomberg BNA, OSHA left enough employees on staff to handle the most serious instances that may occur, such as fatalities, catastrophes, and situations that pose imminent danger. To be exact, two workers at each of OSHA's 92 area offices will remain working—one to check mail and one to maintain the computer network.

MSHA, however, kept 41 percent of its employees on the job. Mine inspectors in particular will continue to work. According to Trippler, this has raised the question of why OSHA furloughed 90 percent of workers, while MSHA furloughed only 59 percent.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board has halted all activities and will keep just three of its 40 employees and three board members on staff. The National Transportation Safety Board posted a notice saying because of the shutdown, it had decided not to investigate a fatal Oct. 6 incident during track maintenance on one of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's subway lines. (WMATA posted a statement about the incident, which killed a contract worker, Harold Ingram, 41, and injured two WMATA employees. All three were struck by a 40-foot section of rail that apparently was propelled by an explosion near equipment that is used to weld rail sections together, according to the transit agency.)

Other government organizations tangentially associated with workplace health and safety have made cuts as well, according to a comprehensive article published by The Economist. In the Environmental Protection Agency, 94 percent of 16,205 workers have been furloughed, with a small percent remaining to take care of toxic waste projects and other issues deemed "critical"; 82 percent of the U.S. Department of Labor's 16,304 employees have been furloughed, as well as 33 percent of the Transportation Department's 55,468 workers. Air traffic controllers will continue working, while aviation safety inspectors will not. And in the Department of Energy, 69 percent of the 13,814 workers have been furloughed, while nuclear-submarine engineers and others will continue to work.

Though OSHA has been strongly affected on the national level, OSHA state plans will only face minor problems, Trippler reported. Most of the work done will continue happening as usual. Though NIOSH is affected by the shutdown, the effects will not be as serious because most of the work NIOSH does is research-based. Two programs at NIOSH will remain unaffected, according to Bloomberg BNA—the World Trade Center Health Program and the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program. Both of these programs receive funding from a source other than the government.

In addition to everyday safety activity, the shutdown affects regulations, such as OSHA's recently proposed silica rule.

Posted by Jamie Friedlander on Oct 07, 2013