Logger Jim Armstrong uses a "stroker-delimber" to pick-up a fallen tree, strip it of branches, cut it to length, and stack it, while working in the Stanislaus National Forest near Dorrington, Calif. Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Loggers, farmworkers and commercial fishermen die on the job at an astonishing pace. In 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the fatality rate for agricultural workers was five times that of American industry as a whole. The rate for loggers was almost 19 times as high, for fishermen 58 times as high.

Trees and tractors crush these workers. Pesticides poison them. They succumb to heat and water.

Even so, the Obama administration wants to eliminate a research and outreach program aimed at finding new ways to prevent deaths, injuries and illnesses in the three high-risk occupations. It also wants to trim a program that trains occupational physicians and nurses, safety professionals and industrial hygienists. The savings, if both programs disappeared, would be about $47 million. The cuts, proposed in February, were not a product of the recent standoff over the debt ceiling.

The two programs are funded though the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The administration argues the programs are of questionable value, and that one of them has accomplished its mission. The White House urges that both be stripped from the CDC’s $315 million occupational safety and health budget for fiscal year 2012, which begins Oct. 1.

But the programs have some ardent fans, who hope to dissuade Congress from dropping the ax when it returns from its August recess.

Letters of support for the eight NIOSH agriculture, forestry and fishing centers, and the 17 education and research centers have been accumulating since the administration’s budget was released nearly six months ago.

An April 5 letter to Jack Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, from Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), is typical. “While the [president’s] budget request commendably increases resources for the two main workplace safety agencies – OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] and MSHA [the Mine Safety and Health Administration] – at a time of declining discretionary funding, it is puzzling that the President would choose to zero out funding for two NIOSH programs that provide the scientific basis for safety and health regulation,” Miller and Murray wrote.

Other letters came from the Washington Contract Loggers Association; Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing; the Migrant Clinicians Network in Austin; the Harvard School of Public Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima, Wash., in a letter to Rep. Doc Hastings (R.-Wash), said that NIOSH had made “the only substantive federal effort” to address hazards in agriculture, fishing and forestry over the past 20 years.

“People in these industries are very regulation-averse,” Marcy Harrington, manager of the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center at the University of Washington, told iWatch News. Harrington’s center and the seven others don’t regulate; instead, they show workers and employers how to avoid risks that can ruin lives and businesses – toxic pesticides, tractor rollovers, extreme heat.

In a fact sheet, NIOSH points out that most farmworkers, loggers and fishermen are not covered by federal worker safety laws because their employers are too small and rely on “family members and/or immigrant, part-time, contract and seasonal labor.” Its centers have helped fill the void with creative initiatives, such as a New York outreach program that led to a tenfold increase in the use of roll bars on tractors to keep operators from being crushed, NIOSH says; researchers have documented “63 close calls with no injuries among farmers who had installed [roll bars].”

Similarly, NIOSH stands behind its education and research centers, where occupational health professionals receive graduate training. Eighty-two percent of the 287 center graduates in the 2009-2010 academic year entered careers in occupational safety and health or went on to more advanced degrees, NIOSH says.

These are the people who will help diagnose and treat work-related illnesses and respond to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, said Carol Rice, who directs the center at the University of Cincinnati. Rice said she was “appalled” to learn of the proposed cuts. “It never occurred to me that we would be on the termination list.”

Spokesman Tom Skinner would not say whether the cuts were suggested by the CDC — or even whether the agency endorses them. In an e-mail to iWatch News, Skinner wrote only that “CDC fully recognizes that tough decisions about discretionary spending are ahead. The agency looks forward to working with the Congress and the Administration on a budget that will allow CDC to continue to protect the nation’s health.”

NIOSH spokesman Fred Blosser declined to comment (the agency’s formal response to the proposed cuts is here. Meg Reilly, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, wrote in an e-mail that “the President’s budget proposals reflect a collaborative effort between agencies and OMB. They are endorsed by both the relevant agency and the White House.”

The administration says the education and research centers are no longer needed because “the intended goals of the program” – providing seed money to universities enabling them to start occupational health and safety training programs – “have been met.”

The agriculture, forestry and fishing centers “are not central to CDC’s mission” and are “more aligned” with the missions of the Labor and Agriculture departments, according to OMB budget documents. Also cited: A 2007 National Academy of Sciences report stating that the program’s research efforts were, by the OMB’s description, “disjointed more often than not” and suffered from a “lack of consistent leadership.”

Supporters of both programs dispute the OMB’s claims, saying, for example, that NIOSH addressed shortcomings identified in the National Academy of Sciences report, which wasn’t that critical to begin with. They hope to win the ears of appropriators when Congress reconvenes in September.

Help support this work

Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you. 

A journalist since 1978, Jim Morris has won more than 80 awards for his work, including the George Polk...