How Will Federal Budget Uncertainties Affect OSHA?

Congress has approved a 2-week extension to the FY 2011 continuing resolution to fund the government through March 18. The measure cuts $4 billion in federal spending and temporarily prevents a government shutdown, but the final 2011 budget – and its impact on agencies like OSHA – remains uncertain.

The House of Representatives had previously proposed slashing the federal budget by about $60 billion – including a $100 million cut for OSHA – but the Senate’s unwillingness to approve this cut put Congress in a stalemate. President Obama’s FY 2012 budget request, meanwhile, includes modest increases for OSHA and MSHA. Aaron Trippler, director of government affairs for the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), doubts those increases will be approved.

“It’s really all up in the air right now,” Trippler told EHS Today. “But I don’t think the 2012 budget that was proposed is going to be the final budget [for OSHA] … I think if anything, it will be flat lined.”

One possibility, Trippler explained, is that Congress could reduce spending through 2011 and then pass a 2012 budget equivalent to the final, approved 2011 funding levels. Of course, with Congress unable as yet to agree on a budget reduction, the 2011 budget levels remain undetermined.

“We’re really in fairly uncharted budget waters with these latest wildly disparate proposals for OSHA from the administration and the new House,” said Frank White, global director, Mercer ORC HSE Networks. “On the one hand, it’s hard to see Congress adding money to OSHA’s regulatory and enforcement budgets in this climate, especially since the agency has fared pretty well in the past couple years. On the other hand, a nearly $100 million decrease for the remainder of FY 2011 would seem to verge on the draconian for an agency that has been chronically underfunded over the long haul – that would cut close to the bone. It’s difficult to tell where the balance lies, but it’s hard to envisage OSHA escaping significant cuts in both 2011 and 2012.

“It’s worth noting the sharp contrast between the administration’s proposed decrease in EPA’s budget and its support for an increase for OSHA – how willing it and the democratic Senate are to fight for OSHA may be a key to the final outcome,” White added.

Trippler also pointed out that since it is unclear where the most recent $4 billion cut will come from, it’s impossible to know how this latest reduction will affect agencies like OSHA, MSHA or NIOSH.

OSHA Oversight

No matter what the final budget looks like, Trippler expects to see increased Congressional oversight hearings for OSHA. In fact, he said the threat of oversight hearings played into OSHA’s decision to withdraw recent proposals, like the MSD column proposal and noise interpretation proposal. He anticipates more oversight hearings on big issues, such as the agency’s Injury and Illness Prevention Program.

“I think OSHA’s going to be very, very careful about what they do. And remember, [Obama] said we need to take a look at regulations that might impact jobs. OSHA’s going to have to be very careful and back off from some of the things they’ve been looking at,” Trippler explained.

The Republican-Democrat divide on occupational safety issues is clear. In a Feb. 15 House hearing that largely criticized OSHA’s impact on business, Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., said “needless rules and onerous regulations are often roadblocks to economic growth” while Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., warned that the Republicans’ proposed $100 million OSHA cuts would cripple the agency and endanger American workers.

Trippler isn’t convinced, however, that this discord will have a dramatic impact on OSHA’s operations.

“There was no legislation enacted in the last 2 years in Congress that addressed occupational health and safety,” he said. “The only regulation that came out of the agency was the cranes and derricks [final rule]. That’s it. You didn’t see anything else. So it’s not like you’ll see a huge change in Congress over occupational health and safety … what you will see is more oversight hearings.”

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