Despite opposition from a broad array of forces, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stuck to its plan to relocate the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) within the CDC’s national structure. That change was scheduled to take effect on October 1.

However, last minute objections in Congress may yet derail or reverse the CDC decision. The Senate Appropriations Committee, reviewing the FY 2005 Health and Human Services (HHS) budget passed by the House, added language directing the CDC to make no changes in NIOSH’s operating procedure or organizational structure and to ensure that no funds or personnel are transferred from NIOSH to other components of the CDC.

Since the bill before the Senate now differs from the one passed by the House, it is unlikely – given the short session before the election recess – that the two can be reconciled before Congress adjourns. Most likely, the CDC-NIOSH structure will remain “as is” under a temporary, continuing resolution that will fund HHS until a regular appropriations bill is adopted, possibly at a “lame duck” session after the elections.

The proposed reorganization would put NIOSH in one of the CDC’s four new “coordinating centers” – specifically, the Coordinating Center for Environmental Health, Injury Prevention and Occupational Health. Under the plan, only the leaders of each coordinating center have formal access to CDC Director Julie L. Gerberding.

Alternate description

LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni

Currently, NIOSH Director John Howard reports directly to Gerberding, and critics of the reorganization say the new plan reduces Howard’s access and influence within the CDC. They insinuate that the reorganization is part of the Bush administration’s on-going denigration of science as a basis of public policy.

“Science should be the foundation of public policy, especially in the area of workplace safety and health,” said Armand E. Sabitoni, LIUNA General Secretary Treasurer and Labor Co-Chairmen of the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America. “In this regard, NIOSH plays a unique and vital role. That role should not be diminished.”

Alternate description

LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck

LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck’s perspective was similar. “Research and scientific analysis provide a common basis on which reasonable people on both sides of the labor-management divide can overcome competing interests and pursue safer, healthier workplaces. While John Howard and NIOSH certainly will continue their efforts to investigate these issues, the demotion of the agency within the CDC structure does not signal a similar commitment by the Department of Human Services.”

NIOSH was created in 1970 “to help assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by providing research, information, education, and training in the field of occupational safety and health.” Though created by the same law that established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), NIOSH develops science-based answers to health and safety concerns while OSHA creates and enforces federal health and safety regulations.

Criticism of the reorganization plan came from a variety of sources. All living former directors of NIOSH, dating back to the Nixon administration, signed a letter opposing the change, and most occupational safety and health organizations in the country – whether affiliated with labor or management – voiced opposition as well. Most cited the necessity to ensure on-going, science-based research as a means to focus improvements in workplace safety and health and limit otherwise self-interested sparring between industry groups.

“This may be the first issue in the last decade that all the worker safety and health stakeholders agree on,” said Frank White to a Washington Post reporter. “It’s hard to see a reorganization like this making NIOSH more effective.” White was a labor department official in the Reagan administration.

This view was buttressed by the letter from the former NIOSH directors. They wrote, “To downgrade NIOSH and blur its mission by combining key functions with other CDC programs will erode its independence and visibility and weaken the scientific contribution that has long benefited American workers and employers.”

LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan also objected to the reorganization in an August 5, 2004, letter to Tommy Thompson, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, of which the CDC is a part. O’Sullivan stated flatly, “We believe the new plan will ultimately decrease NIOSH’s ability to improve worker safety and health.”

In defense of the new arrangement, Gerberding said the changes would improve efficiencies in the CDC, allowing more resources to be devoted to research. She reaffirmed her personal commitment to public health research, including worker health and safety.

The question of the Bush administration’s commitment to science-based policy has evolved over the years and is now widespread. Last February, for instance, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report that documents “a well-established pattern of suppression and distortion of scientific findings by high-ranking Bush administration political appointees across numerous federal agencies.” In a more particular example, LIFELINES ONLINE reported over the summer on decisions by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrators to overrule objections of the agency’s own scientists and allow so-called “wet method” asbestos removal in St. Louis and Fort Worth. Those decisions were reversed after leaked internal EPA documents, protest letters and media reports revealed that no scientific evidence supports the view that the “wet method” can be employed without danger to removal workers and the surrounding neighborhoods.

[Steve Clark]