Opposition Mounts to CDC Reorganization

Occupational safety and health organizations, labor unions, academics, independent consultants and staff members from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are expressing opposition to the administration's reorganization of the CDC because they believe the change will dilute the research capabilities of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The reorganization calls for NIOSH to be placed inside a new entity called the Coordinating Center for Environmental Health, Injury Prevention, and Occupational Health. In addition to NIOSH, the other previously separate CDC agencies included in this new cluster are the National Center for Environmental Health/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Dr. Henry Falk will lead this coordinating center, and he will report through a new layer of management, called "executive leadership," to the CDC director.

In a June 17 letter to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) voiced opposition to the move, and suggested it may be time to move NIOSH from HHS to the Department of Labor.

"If these organizational changes proceed as proposed, they may signal an inability on the part of HHS and CDC to provide the necessary dedication to worker safety and health," ASSE President James Kendrick wrote.

A primary concern of ASSE members, the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, and the Building and Construction Trades Dept., AFL-CIO, is that NIOSH will go from an agency reporting directly to the head of the CDC to an agency under the direction of interests that have no demonstrated commitment to occupational safety and health issues.

In an interview, NIOSH Director John Howard argued that having semi-autonomous agencies reporting directly to CDC's director was precisely the problem.

"All these different offices, centers and institutes had administrative structures and missions, and some of these are duplicative," Howard asserted.

The effort to sell the changes to CDC staff has failed, according to a letter from Frank Bove, of ATSDR. A position paper opposing the reorganization also called the Futures Initiative has received "hundreds of messages of support" from CDC staff members. Although Bove wrote that "whole branches and divisions" agreed with the position paper, "many staff at CDC are afraid to speak out against the Futures Initiative out of fear that they would be punished or would lose their jobs."

Among the problems Bove cited:

  • Staff concerns about the changes are not being respected;
  • The Futures Initiative is being "railroaded" through at a "frenetic pace" via an opaque process;
  • What's needed at CDC is not structural change, but cultural change, such as "stronger public health advocacy," rather than "health marketing."

Another concern raised by critics of the reorganization is that it violates the intent of Congress in the OSH Act, which called for NIOSH to be an independent agency.

Also opposing the move is consultant and NIOSH critic Linda Chaff. Chaff harshly criticized NIOSH at a recent meeting of the National Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, saying that it has failed to issue enough Recommended Exposure Limits of hazardous chemicals.

Echoing a concern of other opponents of the reorganization, Chaff believes the reorganization violates the intent of Congress for NIOSH to be an independent agency.

"This will put NIOSH way down on the bureaucratic food chain," Chaff contended. "I don't think that's the way to make NIOSH more effective."

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