Letter from the Director

John R. Balmes

For many years the training programs of the Northern California Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) have enjoyed fiscal support from two sources, a large Education and Research Center (ERC) training grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and designated state funds through the University of California. The NIOSH funds provide tuition and stipend support for trainees in ergonomics, industrial hygiene, occupational epidemiology, occupational medicine and occupational health nursing.  The state funds support the salaries of faculty educators and Center administrators.  Now, the very existence of the training programs is at stake because both sources of support are threatened.

Over the last few years the University of California has absorbed huge cuts to its budgetary support from state funds.  At COEH, our share has seen at least a 25% reduction in state support.  We do not yet know how much we will be cut this year, but given Governor Brown's plan to cut at least $500 million from the UC budget, it is likely that we will see another large decrease.

If that were not bad enough, President Obama's proposed federal budget for FY2012 listed the 17 ERCs (as well as the eight Agricultural Occupational Safety and Health Centers) as "terminated" (i.e., no funds allocated).  The Northern California ERC which I direct has been continuously funded by NIOSH since 1978 and has trained over 1200 students in occupational safety and health.  Given the current federal deficit, we expected to see a reduction in funding, but not the complete elimination of a successful program.

The White House released a justification for the termination of the ERCs that contained erroneous information.  The justification stated that the original goal of the program had been met, but the statuary goal of the ERCs is "to provide an adequate supply" of qualified occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals without a time limit. Currently, the 17 ERCs produce only about 40% of the government-projected need for OSH professionals.  The White House indicated NIOSH has no means of tracking whether ERC-trained professionals actually end up in OSH jobs. In fact, NIOSH requires the ERCs to regularly provide information about graduates and most work in OSH.  The justification also stated that ERCs were duplicative of OSHA's training programs, although by mandate the ERCs train OSH professionals and OSHA trains workers.  In addition, the justification suggested that because university institutional support was required by NIOSH for each ERC, the programs would survive the loss of federal funding, failing to take account of the fact that at least 60% of every ERC's budget goes to support students.  Finally, the justification suggested that state and private funds could make up for the loss of federal funds – not likely in light of the current economic downturn.

Needless to say, I have a different view of the role of the ERCs than the White House.  These centers have a unique mission:  to address OSH professional practice and research training in an inter-disciplinary environment that directly impacts safety and health practice in the workplace.  They provide considerable value at a relatively modest cost ($25 million funds 17 centers annually).  The ERCs (a) supply over 75% of the nation's OSH professionals in specialty areas like occupational medicine and advanced injury prevention; (b) provide professional development training for OSH practitioners that support professional certification; (c) assist many small, medium and large-sized U.S. businesses; (d) develop major research innovations that prevent occupational injuries and diseases; (e) provide OSH expertise for the public and government leaders in ways that are not duplicative of any other U.S. government program; and (f) help to minimize worker's compensation costs through dissemination of evidence-based OSH practices.

The consequences of the loss of ERC funding are great.  Marked reductions would result in the number and quality of trained OSH professionals for employment in business, government, labor and education.  The ability of OSH professionals to maintain professional certification would be reduced.  The primary source of OSH training for businesses would be lost.  I hope that Congress will see fit to restore funding for the ERCs and Agricultural OSH Centers.  Otherwise, the backbone of the OSH professional educational infrastructure for our nation will be destroyed.

back to top