The partial shutdown of the U.S. government has sidelined thousands of inspectors who monitor everything from air and water pollution to safety hazards at factories and the condition of nursing homes.
Federal law requires agencies to retain workers whose jobs are deemed necessary to protect life and property. Even so, government watchdogs say the skeletal staffs may miss hazards.
“The risks are going up every day,” said Ronald White, director of regulatory policy at the Center for Effective Government, a Washington-based group. “These are under-the- radar kind of effects that are not clearly obvious to the person on the street.”
The cutbacks mean safety regulators can’t do routine inspections of high-hazard workplaces such as chemical plants, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can’t conduct full oversight of the nation’s nuclear power plants and the main federal highway safety agency can’t probe a recent Tesla Motor Inc. electric-car fire.
The shutdown enters its ninth day today as Democrats and Republicans have been unable to resolve differences over the federal budget and President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. Republicans want to defund the law, while Democrats insist on a clean bill to fund the government.
Federal officials say they are directing resources to the most critical functions to handle imminent health and safety risks. Many inspectors are on the job thanks to life and property protection exceptions in the law, according to agency contingency plans developed for the shutdown.
At the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which inspects workplaces, 230 of its 2,235 workers are on the job. The furloughs mean only enough staff to respond to complaints with “a high risk of death or serious physical harm,” according to OSHA’s shutdown plan.
Peg Seminario, safety and health director for the AFL-CIO, a confederation of labor unions, said the agency’s oversight of facilities like chemical plants is suffering in the shutdown.
“The basic, preventative inspections on high-hazard workplaces aren’t happening,” Seminario said.
Food-safety workers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration remain at work. Staff cutbacks, however, leave the FDA with a diminished monitoring capacity, Steven Immergut, the agency’s assistant commissioner for media affairs, said in an e-mail.
There are 626 FDA investigators working and 976 furloughed, Immergut said. The agency is focusing its efforts on monitoring imports that pose a high risk to health, he said.
“FDA is doing what it can under this difficult situation to protect public health,” Immergut said. The agency won’t be conducting about 200 food and feed domestic and foreign inspections per week, he said in response to questions.
Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the food campaign at Food & Water Watch, a non-profit consumer advocate in Washington, said in a phone interview that food safety is “weakened by not having the full complement of staffing” at FDA.
Anti-pollution efforts could also suffer from the shutdown as 94 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency employees are furloughed.
That means inspections of water treatment plants and industrial sites are on hold, as is some work cleaning up hazardous chemicals at Superfund areas, said Joel Mintz, a professor of law at Southeastern University Law Center.
“Inspectors aren’t going out, and no new enforcement cases are going forward,” Mintz said in an interview. “The longer the shutdown goes on, the more serious the consequences will be.”
The agency conducted approximately 20,000 inspections and evaluations in fiscal year 2012, according to its annual report.
While Medicare and Medicaid payments are going out, because they aren’t subject to annual appropriations, some inspections of nursing homes aren’t being conducted.
Routine federal inspections to examine issues including safety, clinical care and medication being administered at nursing homes aren’t being conducted during the government shutdown, according to a memo from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
There is still oversight at nursing homes, according to Evvie Munley, senior health policy analyst at LeadingAge, a Washington-based advocacy group for issues related to aging. State inspections are still being done and federal inspectors will perform their work if they get a complaint about a facility, she said in a phone interview.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration is focusing its inspection efforts on mines that have a history of safety issues. The agency retained 966 employees out of its 2,355- person workforce to protect against “imminent threats to human life in the nation’s mines,” according to its contingency plan.
Three mine workers died in separate accidents that occurred on three consecutive days since the shutdown.
“It is extremely troubling that within a week after the federal government shutdown caused the normal system of mine safety inspection and enforcement to come to a halt, three miners are dead,” Cecil E. Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, said in a statement. “The government’s watchdog isn’t watching.”
Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, a Washington-based industry group whose members include Peabody Energy Corp. in St. Louis, said that the accidents “appear to be an anomaly” and there isn’t any indication that they occurred because of fewer inspections.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has been using carryover funding to remain open for the past week, will have to close after Oct. 10 if the funding impasse isn’t resolved, agency spokesman Eliot Brenner said.
The NRC, responsible for the safety of U.S. nuclear plants, will furlough about 3,600 of its 3,900 employees, he said in an e-mail. Those to be sent home include researchers and engineers that license reactors and perform other duties. All resident inspectors at reactors will remain on the job, as well those overseeing construction of new units, according to Brenner. The agency will also keep enough staff to respond to emergencies.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration doesn’t have the staff to investigate serious crashes or incidents. No NHTSA team is investigating the Tesla Motors Inc. plug-in electric car fire that sparked last week after a driver in Washington state hit a piece of debris on the highway.
“You lose the best available evidence,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington. “If you’re investigating something, you want to investigate the crash on the scene.”
The Federal Aviation Administration recalled 800 out of more than 3,000 airline and aircraft inspectors originally deemed non-essential when the shutdown began Oct. 1.
The workers will monitor major airline operations and the “most critical” production of aircraft and parts, according to a statement from the FAA.
For the past week, no FAA inspectors have been able to audit airline maintenance logs, search data for possible safety trends or perform spot checks of aircraft. While the inspectors serve as a final check, airlines are required to perform their own safety oversight.
Kori Blalock Keller, a spokeswoman for the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union, said the smaller workforce raises the possibility of disruptions in service and safety risks.
“This isn’t sustainable,” Keller said. “Everyone knows it.”
–With assistance from Stephanie Armour, Angela Greiling Keane and Alan Levin in Washington. Editors: Jon Morgan, David Ellis