Letter from the Director

Photo: John Balmes
John Balmes

As most Bridges readers know, the federal budget crisis greatly threatens funding for training of occupational safety and health professionals. President Obama’s proposed budget for the current fiscal year had totally eliminated National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) funding for the 17 Education and Research Centers (ERCs) and the Agricultural, Forestry, and Fishing (AgFF) Program that supports the eight Agricultural Occupational Health and Safety Centers. Our COEH includes both the Northern California ERC of which I am the Principal Investigator (PI) and the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at UC Davis where Marc Schenker is the PI.

The Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) justification for the elimination of funding for the ERCs and the AgFF Program was unconvincing. The main points were that (a) the original mandate for federal support of these programs was to provide seed money to get the ERCs and the AgFF Program launched, but not to sustain them; (b) sufficient numbers of occupational safety and health professionals have been trained by the ERCs so that they are no longer needed; (c) the Centers are required to have institutional support beyond that which NIOSH provides so they would continue to function without federal funding; and (d) the Centers were duplicative of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) training activities. In addition, the AgFF Program was considered outside the CDC’s mission and to have insufficient impact on the nation’s health to merit continued funding.

The number of occupational injuries and illnesses in 2007 was estimated to be 8,564,600 and 480,000, respectively, at costs of $192 billion and $58 billion (read the story here).1 For injuries and diseases combined, medical cost estimates were $67 billion (27% of the total), and indirect costs were almost $183 billion (73%). Agriculture, including forestry and fishing, remains an industrial sector with one of the highest rates of injury and illness. Given this tremendous and ongoing burden of occupational injury and illness, well trained occupational safety and health professionals continue to provide high value to both employers and workers. Despite OMB assertions that there are sufficient numbers of such professionals to serve the needs of the country, a recent needs assessment conducted under NIOSH auspices documented shortages of occupational medicine physicians, occupational health nurses, industrial hygienists, and ergonomists. Elimination of NIOSH funding of the ERCs and AgFF Program would effectively destroy the infrastructure for training of occupational safety and health professionals in the United States. While it is true that the academic institutions at which these Centers are based are required to provide some intramural support to qualify for NIOSH funding, virtually all of the support for students comes from NIOSH. It’s hard to have training programs without students. The idea that the Centers are duplicative of OSHA is so ludicrous that it barely merits discussion. OSHA provides some training to workers and employers, but not for occupational safety and health professionals.

After hearing from multiple stakeholders, including many of you, Congress overruled the President and provided funding for the ERCs and AgFF Program for the current fiscal year. Unfortunately, President Obama’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year again proposes elimination of both programs. The nation’s occupational safety and health training infrastructure is once again threatened with extinction. To allow this to occur would be a tragedy because, as you all know, the workplace remains a critical factor in human health. Conditions in U.S. workplaces have improved over the three-plus decades of NIOSH support of occupational safety and health professional training, but the trend may not continue if this support is eliminated. In addition to reducing exposure to known hazards, the nation needs a well-trained occupational safety and health workforce to be ready to deal with new hazards as they emerge. Our recent symposium on the occupational and environmental health problems attendant to natural and human made disasters (the story can be read here) highlighted the critical need for workplace preparedness, a need the ERCs are well positioned to meet. Reducing investment in professional training of occupational safety and health professionals, even at a time of economic strain, would be penny-wise and pound foolish.

1 Leigh JP. Economic Burden of Occupational Injury and Illness in the United States. Milbank Q 2011;89:728-72.

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