Like most things, the Bush Administration’s proposal to reorganize NIOSH (the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) lower into the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) hierarchy had a story behind it.

In an open letter dated December 9 and addressed to the Occupational Safety and Health Community, the union that represents the NIOSH workforce released that story last month.

“With the reorganization now on hold,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan, “the story behind it is even more important. Without understanding why the reorganization was proposed in the first place, we won’t appreciate how to fight for NIOSH in the battles ahead. One thing’s for sure, this administration is not done trying to gut NIOSH.”

After an outpouring of opposition from health professional associations, unions and former NIOSH directors, both Republican and Democrat, the Congress passed the federal budget with language that directed the CDC to leave its NIOSH-related structure intact. It remains to be seen how the CDC will handle that in practice.

However, according to the open letter, signed by Jenise Brassell, President of Local 3840 of the American Federation of Government Employees, the reorganization proposal was actually merely the latest in a series of steps, begun during the Reagan Administration, to eliminate NIOSH and, failing that, to outsource its work and downsize it through attrition. Brassell writes, “The proposed reorganization is the tip of the iceberg. There are fundamental problems facing NIOSH that have been growing since long before the proposed reorganization. We don’t want NIOSH to become another FDA.”

The reference to the FDA alludes to the growing number of complaints that the Food and Drug Administration, under President Bush, has grown too close to the pharmaceutical industry and no longer scientifically and safely regulates prescription drugs. Two previously approved arthritis medications had to be pulled this past fall after doctors pointed out a long pattern of association with heart attacks. Similarly, after more than two years of questioning and complaint, the FDA issued a caution this fall on the use of anti-depressants with children; evidence showed a significantly increased risk of suicide among children who were prescribed these drugs.

In an 11-page attachment to her letter, Brassell first reviews Congress’ purpose in creating NIOSH in 1970. “The intent of Congress was that NIOSH conduct research, investigate workplace illness and injury, educate workers and management, and support the development of science-based regulation. In the language of the OSH Act, employees should over a working lifetime remain free of ‘material impairment.'” She calls this the “public health model of prevention.”

According to Brassell, that model accepts that forces larger than the immediate circumstances of particular situations operate to facilitate workplace injury and illness. “Implicit…was the premise that the employment relationship imposes powerful barriers to the identification and elimination of hazards.”

Thus, NIOSH was established to delve deeper into the nature of work and its hazards, precisely because the private sector’s goal of maximizing profit through competition in the marketplace will otherwise inhibit scientific assessment of the causes and solutions to workplace injury and illness. By creating a research institute to investigate and make recommendations for action, Congress intended to lay the foundation for better cooperation between labor and management and for fuller accountability of individual companies to the larger lessons of workplace safety.

However, since 1980, writes Brassell, “Successive Administrations have been replacing this public health model with a federal ‘business model’ of prevention. In such a model, NIOSH is to serve ‘customers’ in a commercial health marketplace.” In effect, rather than asserting what is right for safety in American business, NIOSH has been pressed to find safety accommodations that business finds acceptable.

According to Brassell, since 1980, NIOSH budget growth has been negative in real dollars and is less than half of what it would have been had it grown as much as other CDC centers. Also, new research funds have been increasingly “outsourced” to non-governmental programs that do not always embrace the public health orientation that is key to NIOSH’s mission. In addition, NIOSH access to worker populations for research and hazard evaluation has been increasingly curtailed in recent years.

Despite their widespread opposition to the proposed reorganization, most critics doubted it could be derailed, and it remains to be seen how the Bush Administration will react. “The Bush Administration just doesn’t respect science,” says O’Sullivan. “We see this in FDA and EPA policy as well as in this reorganization plan for the CDC and NIOSH. OSHA is another example. Without the mollifying effects of science-based policy, the clash over safety between workers and profit-driven employers will only grow and worsen. That might be good for short-sighted, non-union contractors and their ilk, but it’s no good for business in the long run, nor for Laborers who are entitled to work everyday in safe and healthy workplaces.”