OSHA Chief Defends NIOSH Reorganization

During the August meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH), some members wanted the committee to take a position about the government's controversial plan to reorganize the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

But OSHA Administrator John Henshaw defended the government's right to structure itself without NACOSH advice, and instead steered the committee toward providing input on agenda items favored by NIOSH and OSHA. Henshaw asked NACOSH for advice on the following issues:

  • Hispanic worker safety;
  • Evaluation of alliances and partnerships;
  • Health targeting
  • Motor vehicle safety;

NIOSH Director John Howard also requested help on motor vehicle safety, plus disaster response and improving the health of the U.S. work force.

NIOSH is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and according to the reorganization plan NIOSH's director would no longer report directly to the head of CDC. Nearly all NIOSH stakeholders have expressed concern that the reorganization will dilute the institute's clout and weaken its power to obtain money from Congress. Several former OSHA administrators have also opposed the reorganization on the grounds that it will undercut the research needed for OSHA rulemaking.

"I think it's very unfortunate that the committee didn't have a chance to provide input before that [reorganization] decision was made," commented NACOSH member Vicki Wells, a public representative who is the director of occupational safety and health for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. "I'd really like to see this committee have a role in looking at how that decision is implemented and working with CDC as they go through this reorganization process to make sure there aren't negative outcomes for NIOSH."

Although NIOSH Director John Howard told NACOSH members he encouraged stakeholder input on the matter, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw appeared to convince the committee to back off from taking a position, saying the committee should not "micro-manage" CDC but instead should "look at outcomes."

"I don't think [NIOSH reorganization] is a subject for this committee," Henshaw asserted. "NACOSH isn't a congressional oversight committee we see them often enough."

The government didn't ask NACOSH for its opinion about the NIOSH reorganization, Henshaw argued, and it is in any event an "internal issue" for CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services to decide.

"We owe it to CDC to give them an opportunity to make this work," said the OSHA chief. "We don't know exactly how it's going to function John [Howard] is learning this as he goes, I'm sure."

Henshaw said committee members were free to express their views about the NIOSH reorganization as individuals.

"We're looking for advice on specific issues this committee is serving at the will of the agency or the department.," Henshaw contended. "According to the statute and the NACOSH charter, the agenda of these meetings comes from OSHA and NIOSH."

Some NACOSH members, such as Alan McMillan, president of the National Safety Council, supported Henshaw's position. "Personally I have big concerns about the reorganization, and our organization has expressed those directly," said McMillan. "I think, as NACOSH, we ought to keep our focus on NIOSH programs," adding that he was uncomfortable with the committee getting involved in NIOSH's organizational structure.

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