As the research arm of the federal government, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) does not get much publicity or acknowledgement at the front lines of American industry.

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LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

“And that’s one of the big problems,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan, explaining why the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America (LHSFNA) provided testimony last month to a panel of the National Academy of Science (NAS) about NIOSH’s role in the construction industry. “Most people don’t know about the indispensable work of NIOSH.”

LHSFNA-NIOSH Collaborations

Their behind-the-scenes quality was also noted by other groups that testified before the NAS panel. “Most agreed that NIOSH is a valuable resource,” recalls LHSFNA Senior Safety & Health Specialist Travis Parsons, who provided the testimony, “but they stressed that the agency needs better marketing and more funding so that more construction groups can take full advantage of its resources and products.”

The review of NIOSH’s Construction Program “evidence package” by the NAS was requested by NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard, who has seen the agency’s budget dip (in inflation-adjusted dollars) since 2002. NIOSH, a part of the National Centers for Disease Control, has also faced battles to preserve its independence and initiative within that huge bureaucratic structure. The NAS is expected to publish an extensive evaluation of the Construction Program next year, and NIOSH hopes this independent assessment will increase the impact of its ongoing and future construction initiatives.

Since its founding in 1988, the LHSFNA has worked with NIOSH on a variety of projects, and it was to these efforts that Parsons referred when he testified, “NIOSH plays a central role in preventing illnesses and injuries among [LIUNA members] and the rest of working America…They are the Professionals in the field of Occupational Safety and Health, no matter who you represent. They are an honest broker in a sometimes manipulated environment.”

After delineating some of the programs in which the LHSFNA has collaborated with NIOSH (see sidebar), Parsons called for more support for NIOSH, saying:

  1. More emphasis and resources need to be devoted to dissemination and diffusion of research.
  2. More focus should be placed on research about how the structure of the construction industry, e.g., the low-bid system, impacts safety and health.
  3. Safety culture issues need additional research as well, e.g., what is a positive safety culture and how is it created?

“NIOSH is unique,” says O’Sullivan. “Because its mission is science-based; all it seeks is the truth about what will reduce work-related injuries and illness in the United States. It really deserves additional support and much wider recognition.”

[Steve Clark]