President Barack Obama delivers remarks to the White House press corps about budget negotiations Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama delivers remarks to the White House press corps about budget negotiations.

Has Our Safety and Health Been Put at Risk by the Government Shutdown?

As the impact of a shutdown of the federal government starts to sink in, public safety is becoming an issue.

OSHA Administrator David Michaels was a no-show at the National Safety Congress because of the shutdown of the federal government. FEMA just recalled some of its employees to as a precautionary measure as Tropical Storm Karen nears. The National Transportation Safety Board is not sending anyone to investigate the Tennessee bus crash that killed eight people and injured 14 because its highway investigators are furloughed as a result of the federal shutdown.

With the federal government shutdown and certain federal workers – such as OSHA investigators, NTSB investigators and others deemed “non-essential" – is the health and safety of U.S. workers and the public in general being put at risk?

According to ASTHO, a national nonprofit organization representing public health agencies, U.S. public health has been compromised at a time when we are facing numerous disease outbreaks, a hurricane watch and a host of other new and emerging threats, such as MERS coronavirus and H7N9.

“This is the ticking time bomb scenario. The public health enterprise needs all components – federal, state and local – to be functioning optimally to safeguard the American public,” says ASTHO Executive Director Paul E. Jarris, MD, MBA. “We never know when the next severe public health emergency will strike. If it occurs when federal public health agencies are operating at minimal capacity, the consequences in American lives will be dire.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has furloughed more than 65 percent of its workforce and is unable to conduct in-depth disease outbreak investigations during the shutdown. States rely on the CDC to help identify outbreaks, particularly ones that cross state lines.

“CDC had to furlough 8,754 people,” CDC Director Thomas Frienden wrote on Twitter on Oct. 1. “They protected you yesterday, can’t tomorrow. Microbes/other threats didn’t shut down. We are less safe.”

Facing furloughs of up to two-thirds of its entire staff, the CDC won't be able to monitor the spread of flu, as it usually does every year.  While vaccines will be available, researchers won't know if or where serious flu outbreaks are occurring.

Public health officials learned a year ago how important rapid identification is when the multistate fungal meningitis outbreak occurred. Working together, the U.S. public health system saved hundreds if not thousands of lives as the source of the contamination was identified, potentially tainted product was pulled and those potentially exposed were contacted and began treatment regimens as soon as symptoms occurred.

Preparedness for natural and manmade disasters has also been put at risk during the shutdown. With Tropical Storm Karen developing in the Gulf of Mexico, the HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response only can maintain minimal readiness and limited staffing, so states and localities will have to respond to disasters with diminished federal capabilities. The state of Colorado has been forced to pay National Guard troops for flood relief efforts during the shutdown.

Due to the government shutdown, 15,000 Federal Aviation Administration employees are off the job. This means that nearly 3,000 aviation safety inspectors are not providing oversight of commercial and general aviation aircraft, pilots, flight instructors, domestic and foreign repair stations; conducting in-flight cockpit inspections or ramp inspections; overseeing third-party designees performing critical work on behalf of the FAA or air carriers; and issuing new or renewing current certificates.

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