Obama budget increases workplace safety funding

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 26, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Asserting that mounting workloads and dwindling staff have hindered the government's ability to protect workers, President Barack Obama is pledging to increase the enforcement of workplace safety.

Obama's budget blueprint, released on Thursday, seeks to increase funding to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. More precise funding details for the job safety agency and other federal programs won't be released until April.

"For the past eight years, the department's labor law enforcement agencies have struggled with growing workloads and shrinking staff," the 134-page document said. "The president's budget seeks to reverse this trend, restoring the department's ability to meet its responsibilities to working Americans under the more than 180 worker protection laws it enforces."

The funding increase would enable OSHA to "vigorously enforce workplace safety laws and whistleblower protections, and ensure the safety and health of American workers," the budget proposal says.

The extra money also would be used to increase enforcement of wage and hour rules, and enforce equal opportunity in federal contracting.

Though both houses of Congress will be able to write their own appropriations bills in coming months, lawmakers have shown signs that they will make OSHA a bigger priority. A 2009 appropriations bill now before Congress boosts spending and requires the agency to do a better job tracking injuries and illnesses.

In an investigation of the poultry industry last year, The Charlotte Observer found that weak government enforcement, minimal fines and dwindling inspections have allowed companies to ignore hazards that can kill and injure workers.

In its investigation, The Observer found that many workplace injuries aren't recorded. The government has made it easier for companies to hide injuries by changing recordkeeping requirements and backing away from stiff enforcement, the newspaper found.

AFL-CIO safety director Peg Seminario said that Obama's proposal represents a welcome change in direction from the policies of President George W. Bush, who repeatedly proposed cutting or freezing OSHA's budget.

Randy Johnson, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said money ought to be spent educating employers about workplace safety rather than trying to monitor every job site.

"Maybe if they provided more money to the poultry industry for education they would have been able to prevent those injuries," said Johnson, who worked for OSHA in the Reagan administration.

The number of federal OSHA compliance officers has dropped by about 35 percent since 1980, even though the nation's employment has risen dramatically since then. Nationally, OSHA agencies inspect only about 1 percent of all workplaces each year.

"Over time, the agency has just been eroded," said Seminario, who has been mentioned as a candidate to lead OSHA. "The consequence is that we've fallen further and further behind on addressing serious workplace health and safety problems."

Twenty-four states operate their own workplace safety programs, while the federal OSHA oversees safety in the remaining states.

Federal funding for the state-run OSHA programs has lagged far behind inflation, rising only about 1 percent since 2001.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat who's the chairwoman of a work force protection panel in the House of Representatives, said that Obama's proposal "signals a new day" for workers.

"The health and safety of our workers is absolutely paramount, but under President Bush, enforcement of safety violations had been hindered by out-of-date regulations and inadequate funding," she said. "Simply put, OSHA in recent years has failed in its obligation to protect our workers."

In a $410 billion appropriations bill now before Congress to fund the current fiscal year through September, there is a $27 million increase to the agency's budget, for a total of $513 million.

That bill, passed by the House on Wednesday and expected to be approved by the Senate next week, dictates that the increase be used to rebuild OSHA's enforcement capacity and increase the pace at which the agency writes new safety standards.

(Alexander, of The Charlotte Observer, reported from Charlotte, N.C.)

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