During shutdown, critical public safety functions fall by the wayside

Friday - 10/11/2013, 6:38pm EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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Under the Office of Management and Budget's government shutdown guidance, agencies are supposed to keep on the job all employees who are necessary to handle immediate threats to life and property.

But it would be difficult to argue that thousands of the federal workers who have been sidelined since Oct. 1 don't have a major role in public safety and welfare. A new report from the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee highlights just a few cases where that's true within agencies under its jurisdiction.

Take the National Transportation Safety Board. The small agency has just 410 employees, but 383 are on furlough, including most of its investigators.

"Fourteen accidents have occurred in which we have not dispatched investigators, including an eight-fatal bus crash that occurred in Tennessee, a four-fatal general aviation accident that occurred in Arizona, and a worker fatality that occurred just blocks from here on Washington's Metro system," said Deborah Hersman, the NTSB's chairman, during a committee hearing Friday. "In addition to the activities that we are not initiating, the shutdown has resulted in a suspension of work on over 1,000 investigations in all modes of transportation. These delays slow our determination of probable cause and the issuance of safety recommendations, essentially delaying safety to the American public, resulting in lost lives and injuries."

The shutdown also has forced the indefinite postponement of two critical NTSB investigative hearings, including one for this summer's Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport and the collision of two Metro North commuter trains in Connecticut. The agency also turned down requests for technical advice from other federal agencies and from other nations.

"The NTSB has also received dozens of notifications from our counterparts around the globe about accidents involving U.S.-manufactured aircraft. While we are shut down, the NTSB is not able to fully represent U.S. interests in aviation around the world," Hersman said.

Inspections on aircraft and parts halted

That's not the only potential impact to aviation safety. The FAA's air traffic controllers are on the job, but they're working without support staff, and training of new controllers has stopped. Nearly 15,000 of the FAA's employees are on furlough. That includes 1,200 of the 1,300 people who normally handle safety certifications for aircraft and airplane parts.

And the agency's Aircraft Registry Office in Oklahoma City is closed entirely.

"That's halted delivery of new aircraft to their rightful owners," said Marion Blakey, the CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association and a former FAA administrator. "And regrettably, the FAA has suspended the development, operational testing and implementation of NextGen technologies designed, of course, to make our air transportation safer, environmentally better and more efficient."

Before the shutdown, the registry office already had a 36-day backlog of work because of furloughs earlier this year due to sequestration.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which monitors for and warns about safety defects in 15,000 types of products, has all but ceased to function. The report found 95 percent of its workforce is on furlough, including all of its field inspectors, leaving only 23 employees on the job.

Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America said toys coming into ports on cargo ships are not being inspected, rulemaking activities have stopped entirely and new product recalls are not being issued.

"Last Monday, a 2-year-old girl in San Diego, Calif., was killed when a television tipped over, crushing her to death. Last week, a 1-year-old boy from Hidderdale, Minn., swallowed part of a laundry pod and has been hospitalized due to his injuries. Because of the shutdown, CPSC is unable to investigate these incidents and unable to educate consumers about how to prevent similar tragedies," Weintraub said.

She said several other agencies the Consumer Federation keeps close tabs on have been crippled too, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Guidance offers limited recalls

There, 333 people are on furlough, including nearly all of NHTSA's vehicle safety workforce and all of its vehicle crash investigators. And just like at the CPSC, the product recall process has stopped completely.

"Food safety is in jeopardy as well," she said. "The FDA will not conduct routine food safety inspections. Some compliance and enforcement activities will not be monitored. The CDC is at significantly reduced capacity to identify and respond to food-borne illness outbreaks and is unable to support state and local partners in disease surveillance, which has hampered CDC's capacity to track the recent and current salmonella outbreak linked to poultry that sickened close to 300 people. While most USDA inspectors of meat and poultry continue to work, the agency has said that a lengthy hiatus would have serious adverse effects."