Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been able to somewhat mute the impact of sequestration on many of its operations in 2013, additional sequestration cuts next year could have serious consequences for workplace safety, according to a new report from the Center for Effective Government.
This year, OSHA moved funds around so that most of its core functions experienced a muted effect from the cuts, although only one area, federal enforcement, was fully spared. Most of the impacts of the cuts were related to training, outreach, and travel. But cutting back on these areas will have longer term effects the longer the cuts go on. Reducing outreach could mean fewer worker complaints of dangerous conditions. Thanks to previous spending cuts coupled with sequestration’s impact, OSHA’s budget is smaller now than the last year of the Bush administration.
If sequestration isn’t reversed by the fiscal year in 2014, OSHA’s budget will fall to $531 million from $576 million in 2012 before these cuts took place. Worse, the House Appropriations Committee has been directed to cut 22.2 percent from these agencies, which would drop its funding to $443 million, the lowest budget OSHA will have seen since 1993. As the report notes, these cuts “would curtail the training of new inspectors and reduce their ability to keep up with emerging hazards.” OSHA is likely to lose a large percentage of staff as workers retire, making it even more important to train new ones.
Meanwhile, states have been cutting their own workplace inspection agencies, which may push some of the duties back to the federal level, further hampering its efforts. The report writes, “According to the Occupational Safety and Health State Plan Association, if this trend continues, we should expect to see reduced enforcement and outreach and smaller reductions in injuries, illnesses, and fatalities.”
It’s not like the agency was fully functional before the cuts took place. It had fewer inspectors in 2011 than in 1981, even as the number of workplaces doubled from 4.5 million to 9 million. The ratio of inspectors per workplace fell by half.
Other agencies that ensure the safety of America’s workers will also take a hit. With another year of sequestration, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) would be reduced to $353 million from $379 million in 2012 and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) would drop to $305 million from $331 million. That would mean cutting MSHA’s grant money to train miners to prevent accidents and avoid dangers by as much as two-thirds, for example.
These cuts come in the face of a string of deadly workplace accidents this year. The most devastating was the fertilizer plant explosion in West, TX that killed 15 and injured more than 160 in April. That plant hadn’t received an OSHA inspection since 1985. Two different chemical plants exploded in Louisiana in June, the first in Geismar that killed two people and injured 73 and the second in Donaldsonville that killed one person and injured seven. The plant in Geismar hadn’t received an OSHA inspection in at least two decades. Later in June, a grain plant exploded in Indiana, killing one worker. It has never been visited by OSHA. And in July, a gas tank plant exploded in Florida, injuring eight workers and leaving four in critical condition.
The average workplace only sees an inspector every 99 years thanks to low staffing and perpetually crunched budgets. Yet fatalities and injuries are high. An average of 13 workers died on the job each day in 2011. Workers reported 6.8 million job-related injuries and illnesses.