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Government Shutdown Reduces OSHA Inspection Force by More Than 90 Percent

Thursday, October 3, 2013

By Robert Iafolla

Oct. 1 --The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration furloughed more than 90 percent of its inspectors as a result of the Oct. 1 shutdown of the federal government, leaving the agency with only enough personnel to respond to the most serious workplace emergencies.

Two inspectors at each of OSHA's 92 area offices will remain working, according to the agency's Sept. 10 contingency plan. The agency has followed that plan, spokesman Jesse Lawder told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 1.

OSHA head David Michaels said in the plan that the agency must have enough staff to respond to workplace fatalities, catastrophes and situations posing imminent danger.

“OSHA employees should be able to respond to safety and health complaints or other information when employees are potentially exposed to hazardous conditions that present a high risk of death or serious physical harm,” Michaels said.

Government Shutdown

The federal government was forced to shut down for the first time in 17 years after Congress failed to reach an agreement on a continuing resolution to pay for operations. House Republicans have refused to pass a government funding bill without provisions to suspend portions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Senate Democrats and the White House have refused to negotiate on suspending portions of the health care reform law, which was enacted in March 2010.

OSHA will keep 230 of its 2,235 staffers working during the shutdown, according to the solicitor of labor's estimates.

Michaels said the agency's active staff will include: members of the executive, compliance and information technology staff in the national office; administrators and support staff in the regional offices; inspectors in the area offices; and chemists and industrial hygienists in the Salt Lake City Technical Center.

OSHA: Prevention Duties Limited

The government shutdown leaves the agency unable to protect workers, Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO, told Bloomberg BNA.

“Regular inspections, responding to complaints, outreach, consultation, preparations for rulemaking--all the ways OSHA prevents injuries and illnesses rather than dealing with them after the fact--won't happen,” Seminario said.

 

The shutdown of the federal government doesn't seem to immediately impact non-federal workers in the states with their own occupational safety and health departments. For example, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health will continue its normal day-to-day activities without interruption, spokeswoman Kathleen Hennessy told Bloomberg BNA.  

OSHA has approved state plans in 25 states. Twenty-one of those states police occupational safety and health for all non-federal employees; four oversee public sector employees only.

No End in Sight

There doesn't appear to be a clear end date for the shutdown, representatives of federal workers told Bloomberg BNA.

“I don't think anyone knows, because it's a political decision, not a governmental decision,” said Alex Bastani, head of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 12, which represents workers at the Labor Department's headquarters.

Oct. 8 is an optimistic estimate for when federal employees will be able to return to work, said Dennis DeMay, chief of the National Council of Field Labor Locals, which represents OSHA inspectors and other field office workers. But it may last longer due to the deep divide between the two parties and the way that lawmakers in many congressional districts are insulated from voter dissatisfaction, DeMay added.

Impact on Other Worker Safety Functions

The shutdown forced debilitating furloughs in other government functions focused on worker safety and health.

The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission will keep just two employees active during the shutdown, one to maintain its computer network and one to receive mail, according to the commission's contingency plan .

Two programs at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health will remain unaffected by the shutdown, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds told Bloomberg BNA. The World Trade Center Health Program and the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program can continue to operate because they draw from alternate funding sources, Reynolds said.

“Otherwise, most all other activities will be suspended until something changes,” Reynolds said. “Most of the research will be halted.”

The shutdown will bring the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board's core activities to a halt, managing director Daniel Horowitz told Bloomberg BNA. The Chemical Safety Board is keeping active three of its 40 employees and the three board members, according to its contingency plan.

“We'll have a skeleton crew to restart after the shutdown and keep an eye on any chemical disasters that we hope will not occur during this period,” Horowitz said. “But that is limited to just a basic screening. There are no investigators available, and we don't anticipate that we'll be able to respond to any disasters.”