It’s Day #2 of the Tea Party’s shutdown of the federal government. Shuttered entrances to national parks and museums are immediate and visible signs of this idiocy. The shutdown’s effect on key federal public health programs are probably less obvious, but could have substantially more adverse impact on the U.S. population. Superbug’s Maryn McKenna wrote yesterday on just a few ways that interruptions at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and USDA, could affect your’s (and the world’s) health. With just a few examples, McKenna captures the fundamental purpose of public health—to prevent disease, injury and death.
The Labor Department’s worker safety agencies are grounded in this prevention purpose as well. Conducting inspections in workplaces to identify hazards and see that they are corrected, is at the core of OSHA’s and MSHA’s mission. And, these inspections are effective in making workplaces safer.
Both agencies are hit hard, as are the workers’ who need their attention, by the government shutdown. The Department of Labor’s contingency plan indicates that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) will only have 966 of its 2,355 employees on-the-job. MSHA chief Joe Main indicates its:
“responsibilities will be scaled back to those which directly involve ‘protecting against imminent threats to human life.’
So much for serious hazards which don’t reach the high bar of “imminent threats to human life. Many of them are frequently implicated in substantial harm to mine workers’ health and safety.
MSHA’s statute requires the agency to conduct four inspections per year of all underground mines, and two inspections per year of all surface mines. During the shutdown, MSHA not be able to meet that vital duty. The agency work will be limited to investigating fatalities and safety complaints, and conducting limited hazard-specific inspections. The latter will address conditions and practices which have been the cause of recent death and serious injury. It looks to me that we’re back to the 1960’s when inspectors’ attention was focused primarily on only the gravest of situations: mine explosions, fires and collapses.
The situation for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is worse yet. The agency will have just 10 percent of its workforce on-the-job (i.e., 230 out of 2,235.) OSHA director David Michaels notes that the agency’s bare bones workforce will only be:
“involved in enforcing imminent danger situations, and in responding to workplace fatalities and catastrophes, and employee complaints or other information indicating that workers are potentially exposed to hazards that present a high risk of death or serious physical harm.”
OSHA’s 92 field offices each will have a staff of just two senior inspectors. Each of OSHA’s 10 regional offices will be manned by the Regional Administrator, three other senior managers, and one support staff employee. Obviously, there won’t be too many inspections being conducted by federal OSHA. (The 21 States that operate their own OSHA programs are not directly affected by the shut down and will continue their normal operations.)
Depending on the length of the shutdown, I have to wonder whether federal OSHA will be able to hold employers accountable for violations of health and safety regulations. The OSH Act includes a six-month statute of limitations for the agency to issue citations and penalties. The six-month time clock is activated on the first day of an inspection.
What if the shutdown is protracted? There are hundreds of inspections that commenced in the months just preceding the shutdown. In some of them, perhaps many, inspectors found violations, but had not yet processed them or had them approved up the chain of command. That six month deadline for issuing citations and penalties will pass. Not only will the employer not be held accountable for violating the law, but the hazard may not be corrected.
How long will it take for Tea Party Members of Congress to come to their senses? Perhaps that’s too much to ask.