He was called an “excellent choice,” “highly qualified” and “respected.” So why was John Howard not reappointed as the director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)?

After serving a six-year term full of praise for his accomplishments, Howard was served his walking papers by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on July 14th as critics and politicians alike denounced the CDC’s decision.

“Dr. Howard was a very capable director of NIOSH. Our health and safety fund had a close and productive relationship with him over the past six years,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan. “We are sorry that, despite support from labor, industry, professional associations, as well as the House Labor and Education Committee and the Governor of New York, Dr. Gerberding chose not to reappoint him.”

John Howard came to NIOSH from California’s Department of Industrial Relations where he was chief of the Division of Occupational Safety and Health. There, he oversaw the state’s occupational safety programs. His appointment to NIOSH chief in 2002 was applauded by industry leaders. He reorganized the National Occupational Research Agenda and put a priority on translating research into practice. He bolstered the credibility of NIOSH through the National Academy of Sciences’s review of its programs. Also, after 9/11, Howard oversaw federally funded health care programs for responders, including many Laborers who became ill as a result of their work.

Howard faced internal opposition during his term. In 2004, the CDC attempted to reorganize NIOSH into one of four coordinating centers, which would have drastically affected NIOSH’s independence (read Critics Object to NIOSH Reorganization).

As Howard’s term neared its end, the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America (LHSFNA) was among the many organizations that pushed for his reappointment. The Fund sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in which Executive Director Joe Fowler wrote: “The Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America has had a long and fruitful collaboration with NIOSH. This relationship has deepened during Dr. Howard’s tenure… His reappointment would be a major step forward for occupational safety and health in this country. I urge you to make his reappointment a priority.”

Ignoring such endorsements, the CDC announced on July 3rd that its director, Julie Gerberding, met with Howard to inform him that the agency “will begin a search for a new NIOSH director.” Howard’s term ended a week and half later with Principal Associate Director Christine Blanche named as his replacement until a permanent director is found. The statement further read: “During his six years of service, Dr. Howard was very attentive in addressing the concerns and needs of NIOSH stakeholders and he has worked diligently on many challenging issues. We thank him for his service to the country.”

What followed was weeks of sharp criticisms from labor unions, members of the House and Senate, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others. Many were baffled at the CDC’s decision and called for his immediate reinstatement. In a July 11th editorial, The New York Times called Howard’s failure to be reappointed “a pointless departure.” In a more demonstrative display, Democrat New York Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler protested Howard’s dismissal alongside 9/11 responders at Ground Zero on July 8th. Maloney said, “Only the Bush Administration would fire a respected public servant who has received near-universal praise for doing a good job. Dr. Howard is out of a job because he wanted to help the heroes of 9/11 and his superiors didn’t. We demand that the administration take back this outrageous slap at sick 9/11 responders and reappoint Dr. Howard to a well-deserved second term.”

“[Howard’s] leaving will be a big loss to the Institute,” O’Sullivan adds. “It is yet another example of how the Bush Administration has put the deconstruction of government ahead of public safety and science.”

[Jennifer E. Jones]