February 17, 2011 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 1Comment

Budget proposals are flying up and down Washington DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Capitol Hill, as lawmakers and the President wrestle with funding plans for the current and next fiscal years. The House began debate this week on HR 1 (359 pages), a bill to appropriate funds to federal agencies for the remainder of FY 2011 (i.e., now through September 30, 2011). Many public protection agencies take a big hit under the House Republican’s plan. The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would take a 20% cut and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a 29% cut.

The White House proposed its own cuts for an estimated savings of $33 billion in fiscal year 2012. A 215-page document describes the “terminations, reductions and savings,” including the zero-ing out of two programs administered by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). One is the Education and Research Centers (ERCs) for a savings of $25 million and the Agricultural, Forestry and Fishing program, (AFF) for a savings of $23 million.

NIOSH, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, was created 40 years ago by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act). The agency was established to help fulfill the purpose of the statute to assure safe and healthful working conditions by providing research, information, and education in the specialized field of occupational health and safety. A large share of NIOSH’s $300 million annual budget is distributed across the country to non-governmental researchers and practitioners directly involved with workers, employers and community groups. The ERC and AFF programs are these kinds of programs.

There are 17 ERCs—from University of Alabama and University of Cincinnati, to Johns Hopkins and University of Utah—and the funding supports 87 academic programs. ERCs provide graduate and doctoral level specialty training in occupational health and safety theory, methods, practice and policy to the next generation of researchers, nurses, and physicians who will work in the discipline. NIOSH’s AFF program is supporting 40 research projects across the country, including studies related to pesticide exposure, traumatic injuries, and hearing loss, and translating that research to practice in remote communities where agriculture, forestry and fishing are the way of life.

What caught my eye about these cuts are the uninformed sloppy curious way the Administration justifies them. For the ERCs, the Administration suggests:

“ERCs also overlap with activities offered by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Bureau through their Outreach Training Program, Resource Center Loan Program, and Training Institute Education Centers.” (page 23)

First of all, there is no such bureau in the Labor Department. The White House is probably referring to OSHA. They should know that agency’s name because they used it as their whipping boy just last week (previous post). Second, the White House is uninformed to suggest that the OSHA programs they mention are appropriate substitutes for the NIOSH ERCs. The OSHA and NIOSH programs are designed for different types of students.

OSHA’s Resource Center Loan Program is a lending library for 600 video tapes. No graduate student is going to become an injury epidemiologist watching 6-minute videos on ladder safety. OSHA’s Outreach Training Program is designed for individuals who want to take two one-week courses to become an authorized safety and health trainer. After completing the training, the student receives a trainer card and is authorized to teach a 10-hour and 30-hour course to workers and managers on hazards related the most frequently cited OSHA standards. A physician is not going to develop an expertise in occupational medicine science and practice with the courses offered at the OSHA Training Education Centers.

It wasn’t too long ago that the Institute of Medicine warned about the looming critical

“shortage of classically trained doctoral level safety professionals”


“the number of graduates from residency programs is insufficient to meet the current and future demands for occupational medicine physicians”


“the major shortfall in the occupational health nursing field is the same as that of the occupational medicine field; that is, there is not so much a shortage of practitioners as there is a shortage of practitioners with formal training in the field.”

The White House provides no appropriate evidence to illustrate that the critical shortage of researchers and health professionals has been resolved. In fact, they mislead the public when they say

“NIOSH does not have a means for tracking the location and employment of ERC graduates or the percentage of graduates who work at Health Departments and there is no data on the number of graduates that have entered the field.”

Well, NIOSH may not have that data, but believe me, the ERCs have it.

The White House’s justification for zero-ing out NIOSH’s Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing (AFF) program is also misinformed and superficial. They say:

“NIOSH does not have the direct responsibility to regulate agriculture, forestry, and fishing hazards.”

So what? One of the exact reasons that congressional negotiators created two agencies in 1970—OSHA and NIOSH—was to create a firewall between the agency that regulates health and safety, and the one that conducts scientific research.

The White House indicates that the NIOSH AFF program

“is more aligned with the missions of DOL and USDA.”

Funny thing is, if you search the USDA website for agricultural worker safety information, you are directed to NIOSH. As for the Labor Department, informed individuals know that it has never been a refuge of protection for agricultural workers. Many labor laws have exemptions for agricultural employers, making it less likely that agency staff have had exposure and gained expertise on ag-worker issues. For example, standards to protect agricultural workers from pesticides are not governed by OSHA; they were issued and are enforced by EPA.

I laughed out loud (sadly) when the White House’s justification suggested that adequate information on how to improve farm safety could be found on OSHA’s website. Much of the most relevant, hands-on information provided there was developed the grantees of the NIOSH AFF program. What the White House ignores is what was reported a 2008 Institute of Medicine report reviewing the NIOSH AFF program noted:

“Collectively, the three sectors consistently have the highest injury and fatality rates of any U.S. industries, so the overall effect on the safety and health of exposed populations in agricultural, forestry, and fishing worksites is enormous.”

In fact, it said

“Resources have been inadequate for the AFF Program to carry out its congressional mandate in the area of agriculture, let alone in the additional areas of forestry and fishing. …The AFF Program has the task of addressing manifold issues that affect the occupational safety and health of nearly all natural resource workers on land and sea. That task touches on more than a million businesses, a huge array of products, and multiple workplace exposure. …Despite those enormous challenges, the AFF Program has proved that it is able to conduct sound research on focused areas when given the opportunity.”

As colleagues and I wonder why the White House identified these two programs for termination, some comment:

“Don’t worry. These programs have a vocal constituency and we can count on Senator Harkin to restore these funds.”

That may be how this turns out, but I can’t help but wonder the demoralizing effect it has on ERC- and AgCenter- affiliated students and faculty. What does it feel like knowing that White House thinks your program is redundant or unnecessary, while you see the consequences of uncontrolled workplace hazards and are identifying effective ways to eliminate them.

One thought on “NIOSH programs targeted in President’s 2012 spending proposal

  1. Celeste, thanks for your very thoughtful and informative report on the proposed destruction of some NIOSH programs.

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