A bureaucratic shuffle within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has prompted a political firestorm among experts in worker health and safety and has reignited questions about the Bush administration's commitment to sound science.
At the center of the storm is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the institute within the CDC that conducts research on workplace illnesses, injuries and deaths.
NIOSH was created in 1970 along with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but the two have very different missions. With a legislative mandate that calls for it to be insulated from political winds -- and with its director reporting directly to the head of the CDC -- NIOSH has long nurtured a reputation for independence, rigor and scientific credibility, according to both labor and business interests.
OSHA, by contrast, is an inherently political animal. It resides in the Labor Department and uses information from NIOSH and other sources to craft regulations or voluntary guidelines that weigh the interests of labor and business, usually in sync with the philosophy of the party in power.
Now, however, as part of a larger CDC reorganization effective Oct. 1, NIOSH is to become part of a mid-level "coordinating center" along with other CDC programs. Its director will no longer report directly to CDC Director Julie L. Gerberding.
Gerberding has said the change will increase NIOSH's value by bringing efficiencies that will free up administrative funds for research. But the move has drawn protests from virtually every occupational health and safety organization in the country, including some representing labor and others more aligned with corporate management -- groups that usually are at policy loggerheads but that have shared interests in good science.
Opposition also crosses party lines. Letters opposing the change have been signed by every living former NIOSH director back to the Nixon administration and by assistant secretaries for labor and health from both Republican and Democratic administrations.
"This may be the first issue in the last decade that all the worker safety and health stakeholder groups agree on," said Frank White, a Reagan administration labor official who is now vice president of Organization Resources Counselors Inc., an international management and human resources consulting firm that advises on occupational health issues for 150 large corporations. "It's hard to see a reorganization like this making NIOSH more effective."
NIOSH scientists -- including those working at its research sites in Morgantown, W.Va.; Pittsburgh; Cincinnati; Atlanta; and Spokane, Wash. -- have conducted and compiled much of the science that has clarified the risks of indoor air pollution, occupational stress, workplace chemical exposures and other dangers. The institute also funds hundreds of independent researchers through its grant program.
Each day, an estimated 9,000 U.S. workers sustain disabling injuries on the job, 16 die of work-related injuries and 137 die of work-related diseases, resulting in tens of billions of dollars in direct costs and hundreds of billions in indirect costs, according to government statistics.
Yet NIOSH has often struggled to ensure its independence and at times its survival -- as in the mid-1990s, when the Republican House tried to kill it. Some corporate interests chafe at NIOSH's right to enter workplaces without a warrant when called in by employees to investigate safety issues.
"I can't fathom it because almost everyone works, so you'd think that healthy work would be important," said Dana Loomis, an epidemiologist and environmental health scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "But the unfortunate reality nowadays is that worker welfare, including worker health, is perceived by many as special interest," not worthy of federal protection.
Gerberding, who is realigning NIOSH as part of her Futures Initiative to streamline the CDC, said in an interview that she intends to retain and increase NIOSH's impact.
"We will do anything," she said, to avoid cuts at the institute, noting that she recently transferred millions of dollars in discretionary funds to NIOSH to boost its flat budget.
She called NIOSH Director John Howard "a national treasure." Although Howard will now be one step removed from her "on paper," Gerberding said, she will nonetheless be available to him "day and night."
"I am committed to public health research, worker health and safety," she said.
Few seem to doubt Gerberding's good intentions, but few are convinced that NIOSH will survive unscathed.
"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," the four living former NIOSH directors wrote in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson last month.
Others suggested the move is part of a larger administration effort to politicize science -- a concern exacerbated by the significant role Kent C. "Oz" Nelson played in designing the Futures Initiative. Nelson is chairman of the CDC Foundation's board of directors and former chief executive of United Parcel Service, which fought the Clinton administration's efforts to set ergonomics standards for preventing workplace musculoskeletal injuries.
A letter sent to Gerberding by an online network of occupational health professionals said the NIOSH move "is particularly troublesome given the serious erosion of worker safety and health protection under the Bush administration through repeal of the ergonomics standard and withdrawal of standards to prevent TB in the workplace."
By all accounts, Gerberding has listened to her critics -- even hosting a meeting Aug. 10 for about 30 worker-health organization representatives, which was mediated by a professional communications manager.
She expressed real concern and passion for NIOSH, said Franklin E. Mirer, director of health and safety for the United Auto Workers International Union. But in the end, he said, "the message to us was 'Get over it. This is a done deal.' "
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the CDC, rejected the notion that the deal was indeed done.
"I am not going to go along with the change," he said in an interview. He said he intends to have a hearing on the subject before October.