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Effects of the Government Shutdown – Liability and Consumer Safety

Posted on 10/17/2013Back

Last night, Congress finally approved a plan to extend the budget and end the government shutdown– for a couple months, anyway. Furloughed workers will head back to work today and will likely have heaping piles of work waiting for them.

In addition to the billions of dollars the shutdown has cost the government, many federal agencies have been running on a bare minimum number of employees, having only addressed the most urgent safety threats. They have a lot of catching up to do. Consider these trickle-down effects that have continued to lower safety standards in the past two weeks:

Food Safety:

According to NBC News, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) furloughed 60% of its employees. Throughout the government shutdown period, the FDA only handled high-risk product and food recalls. Routine food inspections were suspended. With each passing day, the FDA became more and more behind on these inspections. Though furloughed employees are returning to work, it will take them many weeks to compensate for the work they have missed. Early this morning, there was already an abnormally high number of food recall alerts.

Worker Safety:

The government shutdown also halted many federal job safety inspection programs. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) continued operations with only 10 percent of its workforce. The Transportation Safety Board limited its criteria so that it only investigated the accidents that appeared to be putting lives or property in danger.

Coal mining is one of the industries that appears to have suffered serious consequences already. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is the federal agency responsible for protecting miners. During the government shutdown, it furloughed more than half of its staff. Like many other federal regulatory bodies, many of its inspections were halted.

Last week, there were three coal mining deaths reported in three consecutive days. This week, the Huffington Post reported yet another fatality, totaling four since the government shutdown began. This rate of deaths, according to the Huffington Post, has not occurred in decades.

Although the mine site at which the fourth miner was killed was among those that have undergone continued inspections despite the shutdown, the mine has received 466 infractions so far this year. According to the Charleston Gazette, the shutdown also prevented MSHA from working on a long-awaited rule that would implement more proximity detection devices. Such devices are designed to prevent miners from being pinned or crushed by moving equipment, which was exactly what happened in the death this week.

Health, Drugs, and Research:

Normally, about 200 new patients enroll on a weekly basis at the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) research-only hospital. The NIH has been turning away new patients for research studies for the past two weeks.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) furloughed over half of their employees and has been severely limited in their ability to spot or control disease outbreaks.

Like the CDC, the FDA has been unable to perform many of its regulatory duties, including approving new drugs and products for market. Now that the shutdown is over, there will be a lot of pressure on FDA employees to expedite the drug approval process.

Transportation Safety:

As mentioned before, the Transportation Safety Board limited its criteria so that it only investigated accidents that appeared to be putting lives or property in danger. Investigations that have been put off due to the government shutdown include a bus crash that killed eight people and injured 13 others, a Bombardier Dash-8 crash which killed four and injured two, and a subway system accident that killed one worker.

The National Transportation Safety Board has not collected on or sent investigators to the scene of 20 accidents involving U.S.-manufactured aircraft that occurred during the shutdown. Two investigative hearings have been postponed, one involving the Asiana Airlines crash that killed three in San Francisco and the other involving two Washington subway crashes.

In addition, the government shutdown furloughed an unprecedented number of Federal Aviation Administration inspectors, meaning airlines were left to regulate themselves during the shutdown period.

More than 2,900 FAA safety inspectors were furloughed as of last week, according to Professional Aviation Safety Specialists. “All of this decreases the safety margin,” says Mike Perrone, national president of PASS. “People have good intentions, but at the end of the day it’s about money. For right now, the airlines are on their own.” In addition, according to USA Today, the Administration is not able to train new air-traffic controllers and has halted inspections that certify new aircraft.

Manufacturers of automobiles were also left to self-regulate, as the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration did not have the means to initiate investigations or recalls during the government shutdown.

Consumer Safety:

According to USA Today, all of the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s port inspectors were furloughed. This prevented the agency from screening thousands of products, including children’s merchandise containing excessive lead and sleepwear that violates flammability standards.

Federal Courts:

Since the shutdown began, federal courts have been relying on fees and other funds to operate. Had the courts run out of money, they would have been forced to shut down all “nonessential work” according to NY Daily News.

Although we can breathe a small sigh of relief that this was resolved before the government was forced to default on its payments, this resolution does not magically fix all of the safety procedures that have been canceled or delayed as a result of the shutdown. The regulatory bodies that exist in order to protect our safety have been functioning at a fraction of their capacity for over two weeks. It is important we remember the safety implications that are linked to a government shutdown and avoid the potential for another one.

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