OSHA Programs May Be Hit by Budget Cuts

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President Donald Trump's proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 would cut $2.5 billion from the Department of Labor, and funding for certain workplace safety initiatives would be on the chopping block.

Specifically, the proposal would eliminate Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) training grants. The proposed budget called the training-grant program "unproven" and said cutting it from the budget would yield almost $11 million in savings. The agency's attention should be focused on "its central work of keeping workers safe on the job," according to the proposal.

"Trump's budget cuts to the Department of Labor will likely result in OSHA rebalancing its priorities and shifting more focus to compliance assistance for employers," said Edwin Foulke, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and the former head of OSHA under President George W. Bush.

Under President Barack Obama, OSHA focused a disproportionate amount of time on enforcement efforts, rather than partnering with employers to create safe workplaces, Foulke said. He estimated that the agency focused 90 percent of its efforts on enforcement and 10 percent on compliance assistance.

But nothing in the FY2018 budget blueprint is set in stone. The Trump administration's proposal can be viewed as a first offer with negotiations to follow, said Eric Hobbs, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Milwaukee. There's no way to know for sure at this point what specific OSHA enforcement efforts will be affected by any final budget cuts, he added.

Training Program Targeted

The budget proposal specifically targets OSHA's Susan Harwood Training Grant Program. This program awards grants to nonprofit organizations that provide training for employers and workers on recognizing and preventing workplace safety and health hazards.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Effective Safety Management Programs]

The program also seeks to inform workers of their rights and to advise employers on their responsibilities under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. It targets workers with poor literacy skills and employees in high-hazard industries, according to OSHA's website.

Some business groups and Republican members of Congress have opposed the grant program as being ineffective. For example, in 2016, the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee said that compared to other workplace safety training programs, the Harwood program is "inefficient and ineffective in achieving its intended purpose, at least in part due to a lack of effective oversight of grantee performance." The grants have also been scrutinized as providing subsidies to labor unions.

"OSHA's Harwood grants were often awarded to unions and worker-advocacy groups under President Obama," Foulke said.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka criticized the budget, saying that the Trump administration should do better. "Working people in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin didn't vote for a budget that slashes workforce training and fails to invest in our nation's infrastructure," he said in a press statement.

More Balance Expected

Foulke expects a more equal balance between enforcement and compliance assistance under the new budget. He noted, however, that even though the agency's priorities will be different, the contraction of the agency is nothing new.

"In fact, in 2015, OSHA conducted the least amount of inspections in 20 years. Under expected OSHA budget cuts, employers will see an acceleration of that contraction as OSHA employees retire over the next couple of years and those vacancies are not filled," he explained.

He noted that the agency's outside consultants may be hit the hardest by any cuts. "OSHA relies on outside consultants to conduct analyses that enable the agency to make rules and set standards," he noted. Fewer consultants will likely mean less rulemaking and thus less expansion of regulation, he said.

Regardless of the position an employer takes on a particular issue, every time the pendulum swings with a change in administration, it is difficult for businesses, Hobbs said. "Not knowing what the rules of the road will be makes it nearly impossible for strategic planning." 

Hobbs said employers should hold tight and prepare for even more change. Much of OSHA's proactivity over the last few years came in the form of subregulatory guidance—which doesn't go through the formal rulemaking process.

Interpretations like these are easier to reverse and be changed under the next administration, he noted.

 

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