A Bush administration plan to reorganize the parent organization of the institute charged with studying worker health and safety has come under fire from four former directors, including two Republican appointees.
In a letter sent Friday to Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson, the former heads of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health expressed “great concern” that a restructuring of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would bury the institute in the bureaucracy.
“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,” wrote former directors Marcus M. Key, Anthony Robbins, J. Donald Millar and Linda Rosenstock.
Rosenstock, who was appointed by President Clinton, said the reorganization reflected the Bush administration’s disregard for independent scientific research.
The administration angered labor and occupational scientists by repealing regulations, based on institute findings, designed to protect workers from repetitive stress disorder.
The administration explained that its policy was to encourage businesses to improve their employees’ work environment, not force them to do so.
NIOSH’s new place on the bureaucratic ladder is part of a larger reorganization at the CDC. Critics of the plan worry that in their effort to streamline the agency, officials overlooked NIOSH’s special role.
“Lumping NIOSH with other parts may look good superficially,” Millar, who was appointed by President Reagan, said in an interview. But the closer it is examined, “the less effective it looks to me. NIOSH is different.”
Unlike other CDC agencies, NIOSH was created by Congress in 1970 as an independent institute providing the Labor Department with scientific information on dangers in the workplace. It was later placed under the CDC, reporting to the director.
Under the new plan, NIOSH would be “clustered” with other agencies and no longer report directly to the head of the CDC.
That, Rosenstock said, would leave the institute vulnerable to political attack. The law establishing NIOSH “let the science be independent,” she said. “When you put an agency a layer down in a bureaucracy ... and you add an additional reporting structure, you make it easier to politicize the work of that agency.”
Labor groups, business leaders, occupational health experts and four former assistant labor secretaries have also written letters to CDC head Dr. Julie Gerberding opposing her reorganization plans. Her spokesman said much of the criticism stems from a “misunderstanding” of the plan.
“Occupational safety and health and all the work NIOSH does will always be an integral part of what we do here at CDC,” said the CDC’s Tom Skinner. This will bring CDC’s constituent agencies closer together, he said.
Labor leaders said they had little opportunity to influence the CDC plan. “It was not something we were advised on or consulted on,” said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO.
The change, she said, reflected an administration that is “not placing a high priority on worker safety.”