This year’s proposed budget has the Bush administration cutting the already meager budgets of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. OSHA is the agency designated by Congress to promulgate and enforce worker health and safety standards. NIOSH is designated by Congress to research and recommend regulations that govern worker exposure to toxic substances in the workplace, heat and cold exposure, weight-lifting limits and ergonomic standards designed to protect workers from repetitive motion injuries.

NIOSH recommends these standards to OSHA for enactment into law, but this process has been stymied by years of governmental inertia. Even though the recommendations cannot be enforced by OSHA federal marshals, union safety and health committees often use these recommendations to force their employers, through contract negotiations and labor contracts, to adopt them as if they were federal standards. Once in the labor contract, they have the force of law. Bush’s cutting back on both OSHA’s and NIOSH’s budgets is a real attack on workers’ lives and their survival.

Cuts in OSHA budget cruelly directed

The current budget cuts proposed by Bush will directly affect any further development of federal standards. There is a line forming as OSHA waits for NIOSH recommendations to become federal law.

If the Bush cuts go through, 64 federal compliance officers will be laid off. There are already fewer than 1,500 federal compliance officers in the country. This is why most labor activists say the perceived threat to employers of an OSHA inspection is more likely than an actual inspection.

These cuts will also affect the extremely popular program of workers’ safety and health training and education grants, along with severe cutbacks in the safety and heath statistics program. The picture is clear. Keep education programs for workers at a minimum so that workers and their unions are simply not aware of the federal rules and regulations that Congress has enacted for their protection. Right-wing advocates have been attempting to get rid of these programs since the heyday of OSHA enforcement in the late 1970s.

The cynical intent of cutbacks in funding for federal statistics programs which document injuries and illnesses at the workplace is obvious. If federal investigators and policy makers have diminished statistical proof that toxic substances and work practices are causing injuries and illnesses, they will have less ammunition to present to congressional committees to propose safer working conditions. This has been the right-wing agenda starting with the passage of OSHA under Nixon, continuing under Reagan/Bush and now under the current White House.

Money for employer ‘self-compliance’

A recent article in the American Public Health Association’s American Journal of Public Health by Dr. James Weeks cites the wrong-headed policy in the Mine Safety and Health Administration laws which allows mine owners to conduct their own respirable coal mine dust testing. He correctly titled the article “The Fox Guarding the Chicken Coop.”

The overall design of the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and other Bush ideologues is aimed at keeping OSHA and NIOSH weak but alive. Bush and his cronies don’t intend to eliminate OSHA since keeping OSHA around precludes lawsuits from being brought by workers and their unions. The goal is to keep the OSHA and NIOSH agencies, but hand enforcement over to the employers. Bush is actually requesting an increase of over $7 million for the employer-controlled compliance assistance program. That program now eats up $67 million of the meager OSHA budget.

Under this pro-employer policy, the Bush administration can point to the OSHA and NIOSH rules and say, “They are still there.” But everyone knows that, without strong enforcement, they are of increasingly little value to workers.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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