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Shutdown Squeezes Loans, Safety

Monday, October 7, 2013

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Public housing authorities, cities and states are waiting for federal loan and grant checks, and workplace safety inspections are on hold as a result of the U.S. government shutdown, federal agencies report.

As of Friday afternoon (Oct. 4), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had closed all 80 field offices and furloughed all but 337 of its 8,709 employees, impacting lenders and borrowers that work with HUD programs to various degrees, under a Contingency Operating Plan the agency submitted Sept. 27.

HUD housing

HUD residential and commercial loan programs and Community Development Block Grants to states and cities are being affected by the federal government shutdown.

New loan activity will be hardest hit, but delays could affect many commercial and residential construction programs. The National Council of State Housing Agencies has summarized the key programs affected.

The Department of Energy, whose funding mechanism allowed all 13,800 employees to remain on the job when the shutdown began, has now updated its Lapse of Appropriations Plan to retain fewer than 950 workers. About 140 of those retained are involved in nuclear weapons management.

The government shutdown is also squeezing other vital segments of the building industry, including health and safety.

Safety Oversight Slashed

Most federal workplace health and safety inspections have been halted, and most federal inspectors are off the job, the Occupational Safety and Health Adminstration reports.

OSHA has furloughed 90 percent of its personnel and suspended most of its operations, including regular inspections, following its agency Contingency Plan, issued Sept. 10 by Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA.

OSHA inspection

During the shutdown, OSHA will investigate only major emergencies, including fatalities and catastrophes. This OSHA team responded at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 attack.

The plan took effect at midnight Tuesday (Oct. 1), stripping OSHA, HUD and other agencies to bare-bones crews of personnel deemed essential. Overall, about 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed.

In OSHA's case, the agency has retained only enough staff (230 of its approximately 2,235 personnel) to respond to the most major workplace emergencies, including deaths and catastrophes (defined as an accident that fatally injures two or more employees or leaves three or more employees hospitalized).

Who's Left

At the national office, OSHA's remaining staff includes just four senior compliance staff, six members of the executive staff, and the agency emergency manager.

Each of OSHA's 10 regional offices retains a Regional Administrator and Assistant Regional Administrators (ARAs) for Administration and Management, Enforcement, and Technical Support.

OSHA Inspector OSHA Salt Lake City Technical Center
NAHB (left); OSHA (right)

Most of OSHA's approximately 2,200 inspectors have been furloughed. All regular health and safety inspections and routine activities have been cancelled, and OSHA's Salt Lake City Technical Center staff (right) is down to four people.

In addition, each of OSHA's 92 Area Offices nationwide has only a Senior Health Compliance Officer and a Senior Safety Compliance Officer. And the agency's Salt Lake City Technical Center kept two senior chemists and two industrial hygienists.

Although routine activities have been cancelled, it is not clear how the shutdown will impact employers who face various deadlines in contesting a case, according to a report by labor attorneys with Seyfarth Shaw LLP.

Other Safety Agencies Closed

Other agencies with workplace health and safety responsibilities have also slashed staff. The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) Plan for Shutdown retains only two of the agency's 58 employees. The commission is an independent agency that reviews OSHA decisions.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency that investigates chemical accidents, has kept just three of its 40 employees. No federal employees will investigate industrial chemical spills/accidents that happen during the shutdown, and all current investigations are frozen.

Williams Olefins explosion

All investigations are on hold at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, including the case of the Williams Olefins plant explosion and fire that killed two workers in Geismar, LA, in June.

The National Transportation Safety Board, is still investigating major accidents and continuing ongoing investigations. All conferences and events, however, have been postponed or cancelled.

Most major federal agency websites are now unmonitored and are not being updated.


Tagged categories: Building operations; Commercial Construction; Health and safety; HUD; Inspection; OSHA; Residential Construction; U.S. Department of Energy

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