Concerned about the ability of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to fulfill its mission while a part of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) have sent a joint letter to Congress, asking it to check out options.

Sent last week to Rep. John Kline, Chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, the letter urges Congress to direct the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a thorough study of the matter.

“The CDC, in fulfilling its difficult mission of meeting the challenges to American’s overall health and well being, is not in the best position to champion NIOSH’s largely separate and distinct mission of supporting protections for Americans at work,” said AIHA President Michael T. Brandt and ASSE President Darryl C. Hill, Ph.D.

“NIOSH is this nation’s only resource for occupational safety and health research and support for health and safety education. With a multi-faced mission, NIOSH dedicates itself to work with over 500 partners in the private and public sectors on the National Occupational Research Agenda and supports the training of occupational safety and health professionals and researchers through 16 regional Education and Research Centers as well as training grants throughout the United States. Without an effective NIOSH, it would be difficult for our members to continue to advance this nation’s ability to protect its workers from health and safety risks.”

The letter says a GAO study is needed because of “a series of difficult changes” that have taken place within the CDC in recent years, including a reorganization that met with strong resistance from safety professionals. NIOSH ultimately received an exemption from the structural changes but the AIHA and ASSE called that a short term fix that would not address overall problems – like funding shortfalls.

“…Without increases in funding resulting from MINER Act provisions dedicated to increased mine safety and health research and the recent funding dedicated to the 9/11 health care program, NIOSH’s budget has remained flat and continues to fall short of its commitments to occupational safety and health research and education as an ever-increasing amount of its budget is forced to be given back to CDC for administrative costs, according to the letter. This impacts NIOSH’s ability to provide the research and education our members need to help employers protect workers.”

One example cited was the need to study the health and safety effects of the emerging field of nanotechnology. In recent years, NIOSH has had to find several million dollars from its existing budget for nanotechnology research because no direct research funding has been appropriated.

Previously, ASSE recommended that NIOSH be located within the Department of Labor, where it could more easily interact with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), agencies that most directly receive the advice and research from NIOSH.

The AIHA suggested keeping it within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) but within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to better reflect NIOSH’s scientific purposes.

”Neither ASSE nor AIHA believe either solution may be ideal, however,” said Brandt and Hill. “As the debate over this issue has grown, we suspect the best option may be to make NIOSH an independent agency within HHS reporting directly to the Secretary of HHS.”

A full GAO study, the two argue, is needed to weigh all the options and determine whether NIOSH should remain a part of the CDC, or, if not, where it should be located within the federal budget.