Lawmakers Press Colleagues To Back Robust OSHA, NIOSH Funding Levels In Fiscal ’16

House and Senate Democrats are circulating letters urging lawmakers to support increased OSHA funding and to shield NIOSH from the Obama administration’s long-contemplated elimination of two research and education programs, with the advocacy effort driven by several safety and health professional organizations.

The move comes as some congressional Republicans are questioning OSHA’s use of its limited resources to issue a controversy-laden final rule on crystalline silica hazards and other rulemakings, as well as to beef up enforcement at the expense of more cooperative programs with industry.

The president is seeking a nearly $40 million increase for OSHA in fiscal 2016 (see related story), and with many observers seeing lawmakers having a shot this year at a regular-order appropriations process, OSHA backers are pressuring appropriators to provide robust funding levels. The president’s budget request is heavy on new enforcement spending, including funds specifically aimed at rolling out a new hospitalization reporting rule (see related story).

Safety organizations and their congressional supporters argue that despite wide-ranging differences over precisely how OSHA should spend its limited funds, the agency’s key role in the advancing occupational safety and health is without question and that Congress must pass spending legislation that at least maintains existing levels. The American Society of Safety Engineers, American Industrial Hygiene Association and National Safety Council are all pressing their members to support the effort on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter seeking support in the fiscal 2016 Labor appropriations measure for Obama’s proposed $592.1 million funding level for OSHA. A similar letter to colleagues from Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Frederica Wilson (D-FL), ranking Democrats on the labor committee and workforce protections panel, respectively, seeks support for the president’s budget request. A source following the issue said Tuesday it was still unclear how many lawmakers had signed onto the letters.

The Senate letter seeks backing from appropriators for the proposed OSHA funding bump, but also requests “that you include a minimum of level funding for OSHA’s compliance assistance, rulemaking, and enforcement efforts.”

“Progress has been made on reducing workplace deaths and injuries since OSHA was established 40 years ago, but much more work needs to be done. Approximately 4,500 American workers are killed on the job each year, and more than three million serious occupational injuries and illnesses are recorded annually,” according to the Senate letter. “These deaths, injuries, and illnesses have enormous economic consequences. According to the National Safety Council, fatal and non-fatal work injuries cost our economy $198 billion in 2012. Much of this cost is borne by federal programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and the Social Security Disability Insurance Program.”

The appeal to appropriators says OSHA plays a critical role in worker safety by helping employers meet OSHA standards and taking action against companies that fail to comply. “Its inspectors are responsible for protecting the lives and well-being of 130 million American workers at more than eight million places of work around the country. OSHA’s efforts save lives, and reduced or level funding could hinder the agency’s ability to carry out its mission efficiently and effectively. We urge you to provide OSHA with robust funding in Fiscal Year 2016 so that the agency can fulfill its mission of ensuring a safe and healthy work environment for American men and women.”

Scott and Wilson urge appropriators on the House side to support the president’s budget request, with particular attention to three policy areas:whistleblower protection, state program grants and modifying a longstanding appropriations rider to allow OSHA to inspect smaller workplaces with potential catastrophic explosion hazards — a change that the administration first proposed more than a year ago (see related story).

The economic burden of occupational injuries and illnesses has been conservatively estimated at $684 million per day, or $250 billion per year, in direct and indirect costs, according to the House members’ letter. “Since workers’ compensation insurance only covers approximately 25% of these costs, the remainder is shouldered by employers, workers and taxpayers.” The letter says that under the current budget, it would take OSHA an average of 139 years to inspect each workplace in its jurisdiction.

At the same time Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is seeking colleagues’ support for maintaining current NIOSH funding and programs. The Obama administration is repeating a longtime appeal to Congress to zero out the Education and Research Centers, and the Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing programs, with White House budget officials arguing they are obsolete or unaffordable, as part of a $51 million overall budget cut to NIOSH discretionary funds (see related document).

“Through 18 university-based Education and Research Centers (ERCs) in 17 states, NIOSH trains thousands of occupation safety and health professionals to minimize the dangers faced by workers,” Gillibrand says in her letter to colleagues. Gillibrand adds: “Agricultural safety and health has been an important focus of NIOSH for more than 20 years. Congress designated NIOSH to lead a comprehensive national effort to prevent occupational injuries in the agricultural sector.”

The Dear Colleague letters had a deadline on Monday (March 23) for signatures. — Christopher Cole (ccole@iwpnews.com)