Today’s Washington Post headline, “Obama to propose freeze on government spending,” likely sent a chill down the spines of officials in charge of many federal agencies.   In tomorrow night’s State of the Union address the President is expected to announce a moratorium on new discretionary spending which would include Department of Labor programs to advance workers’ rights and enhance health and safety protections.  The WashPost article quotes an anonymous senior administration official with the ominous sounding:

“You can’t afford to do everything that you might have always wanted to do.”

This sounds pretty grim.  But, I’d urge agency heads to consider these harsh prospects in a positive light.  Take the words from above and modify them slightly into these marching orders: 

You can’t afford to do everything, so direct funds to efforts you’ve always wanted to do in line with the agency’s core goals.

One could look at OSHA’s current $500+ million budget and ask whether an agency with a core mission of standard-setting, investigations and inspections should be directing $128 million to compliance assistance programs.  This includes the free OSHA on-call expert services provided to 2,000+ employers,* such as Pfizer, GE, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, Entergy, Shell Oil, and Delta, that are OSHA-designated VPP sites. 

Could those funds be redirected to H&S efforts for underserved worker groups?   Such as:

  • Initiatives to ensure that ALL workers know their H&S rights, and not relying primarily on employers to provide the information. 
  • Improvements to ensure a strong safety net is in place for workers who exercise their H&S rights, and beef up legal action against employers who retaliate against them.  OSHA’s senior officials must acknowledge and address the serious deficiencies in the whistleblower program, and make it first-rate.  There’s an especially urgent need to do this before the upcoming National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety.  (See the primary goal about workers exercising their rights.)

I’ll be tuning in tomorrow night to listen to President Obama’s State of the Union address.  I expect to hear some inspiring words about making smart funding choices that directly support the agencies’ core responsiblities.   Clearly, OSHA will not have the money to do everything that I hoped for a year ago.  But, the President’s spending edict gives OSHA’s leaders a unique opportunity to change the agency’s direction with bold budget decisions.

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*I sent a FOIA request to OSHA on Jan 4, 2010 asking for the month/year in which the 2,314 worksites,listed on the agency’s website were approved as VPP sites.  I’m waiting for the response.   I requested to data to gain better perspective on how OSHA’s current responsibility to VPP sites may (or may not) divert resources from other agency programs.