ISHN

This month in Washington

May 24, 2000
Fewer inspections, long delays in rulemaking -that's how a Washington newsletter assesses the impact of budget cuts on OSHA. But that was last year's story, really, when the agency conducted the fewest inspections in its history, and the ergonomics standard was put on the back burner. So just how bad is it, this attack on OSHA funding? After all, safety and health managers in industry have been living in lean times for years. Only 25 percent of Industrial Safety & Hygiene News' readers managed to get budget increases for 1996, according to the magazine's research. Only 9 percent are looking to expand their staffs.

There's less money for travel, employee training, and professional development. Many corporate safety and health people feel stretched, strained, and stressed. So OSHA officials must tread carefully when describing their current plight -they're not going to get a lot of sympathy in the harsh business world of the '90s. Fact is, many safety and health pros see nothing wrong with a downsized OSHA.

You don't hear top OSHA officers singing the fiscal blues along Pennsylvania Avenue. Publicly, they vented more anger over being jerked like puppets during the government work stoppages. Privately, some say they can live with a 10 to 15 percent cut -at least for this year.

That's probably what will happen. The agency expects to learn by mid-March what its funding level will be for the remainder of fiscal year 1996, which ends September 30th. Most officials believe that the House-mandated 15.5 percent cut will stick. Why? Because the Senate appropriations bill, with its 5-percent OSHA spending cut, is mired in partisan politics over issues like President Clinton's striker replacement order. If the Senate doesn't act and force a spending compromise with House Republicans, OSHA's continuing resolution budget with the 15.5 percent cut will likely become set for the year. That would put funding at $263.9 million, compared to $312.5 million last year.

When asked to describe the effect of the missing $48.6 million, OSHA officials are short on details. Some of their comments, though, have a familiar ring to industry people: ·

  • "No one is getting trained;" personnel can't travel to professional development courses, says agency spokesperson Cheryl Byrne. ·
  • Additions to head count are a fading memory. One official jokes the last time anyone was hired was before Republicans took over Congress in November, 1994. ·
  • The boss, in this case agency chief Joe Dear, is doing all he can to protect his people against layoffs, and so far he's succeeded. But he can't protect salaries and benefits -which account for two-thirds of OSHA's budget -indefinitely. A 15.5 percent cut for the rest of the year might trigger unpaid furloughs of 35 days or more.

Officials discount layoffs for this year, although a Labor Department report raised the spectre of more than 600 staffers (out of OSHA's 2,200-member work dforce) being let go if current cuts remain in effect. Still, some long-time and no doubt jaded OSHA-watchers say they wouldn't be surprised if layoffs are announced a few weeks before the November elections.

Less bucks, less bang

But what about the near-term effects of budget cuts? On the enforcement side, there were reports back in December and January of 1,440 inspections being delayed, due mostly to the federal shutdown. Agency officials aren't sure where the backlog stands now.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of OSHA Michael Connors, who oversees inspections, says some big-ticket penalty cases have been held up due to the time, effort, and money that goes into them. Last year, the agency issued 140 "significant cases" with $100,000 or more in fines. Connors says that number won't be reached this year, which is a concern because in light of overall declining inspection numbers (29,113 in 1995 versus 42,377 in '94), OSHA uses big cases to let employers know it's still around.

In the health and safety standards offices, the impact is more long-term. John Moran, OSHA's director of policy, says contracts to outside research firms to conduct cost-benefit analyses have been held up, hampering the groundwork for future standards.

Short-term, proposals already in the pipeline are more likely to be postponed by politics than budget cuts. In a presidential election year, it's just not politically correct to issue regulations costly to business. The Office of Management and Budget and Labor Department honchos will make sure it doesn't happen.

Still, a major recordkeeping proposal was issued in February. And Moran outlines an ambitious standards schedule for the rest of the year: final rules are expected on abatement verification, 1,3-butadiene, scaffolds in construction, methylene chloride, and respirators. Proposed standards are set to be issued on tuberculosis, steel erection, and a huge one covering safety and health programs.

State-run OSHA programs, which depend partly on federal funds to maintain operations, are also taking a hit. But again, details are scarce. OSHA funds 50 percent of these programs (which operate in 25 states), and 90 percent of state-run consultation programs. (OSHA also funds consultation services in states under federal jurisdiction.) Potentially, $4.6 million could be drained from consulting programs.

Budget spin

Officials are quick to stress that this makes it impossible for OSHA to become the kind of regulator Republicans want to see. "Congress is getting exactly the opposite of what it wanted," says one official. "It wanted us to be more business friendly, more cooperative and consultative. That's what we were becoming with reinvention. But reinvention goes out the window with these cuts."

The real grunt work in transforming OSHA's culture takes place out in the field. Fifteen area field offices have completed or are in the process of receiving training in how to shift their traditional "see it, cite it" inspection focus to something much broader: working with local businesses and labor groups to solve problems specific to the region. Now the dollars "just aren't there" to go ahead with any more of these office "redesigns," says Connors, until the agency knows how much money it will have for the rest of the year.

Initially, the plan was to have 37 area offices trained in what agency people like to call "the new work" by the end of 1996. One person in OSHA's management team now pegs the number at 17.

Officials also put this spin on the budget cuts: If money keeps drying up, all the agency will be able to do is tend to its legal mandates to enforce standards, they say.

If a 15.5 percent cut remains in effect for the remainder of the fiscal year, it will "force us back to more traditional activities," says Connors. "If you're forced to choose between working on a partnership project and responding to a serious complaint, you've got to go that high-risk complaint."

"Republicans hate our enforcement, but that's all they're going to get" if the cuts keep coming, says another official. "In the worst case, all we're going to be able to do is respond to imminent dangers, fatalities, and catastrophes."

In the battle of the budget, the warring factions from Gingrich and Clinton on down mix threats with regrets. It's no different with OSHA.

"This is the year to really get reinvention going in the field," says Moran. "That's why these budget cuts are so unfortunate. You would think they'd want to give us additional resources, given the positive impact of what we're trying to change."

This much seems clear from talking to agency officials: OSHA can live with a 15.5 percent cut this year; tack on another 15 percent next year and the stakes are much greater. The biggest blow this year is to reinvention, which is being slowed just when the talk was turning into action.