Photo by Earl Dotter, www.earldotter.com

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services will vote Thursday on OSHA’s FY 2018 budget. Most of the OSHA budget remains flat, but there’s one devastating exception. The budget calls for the elimination of OSHA’s 40 year old Susan Harwood Worker Training Grant Program.

Originally created in 1978 as the “New Directions” Program by President Jimmy Carter’s OSHA head, Eula Bingham, the grants are intended “to provide training and education programs for employers and workers on the recognition, avoidance, and prevention of safety and health hazards in their workplaces.” The grants were renamed in the late 90’s to honor the late Susan Harwood, a former director of the Office of Risk Assessment in OSHA’s Health standards directorate, who died in 1996. During her 17-year tenure with the agency, Harwood helped develop OSHA standards to protect workers exposed to bloodborne pathogens, cotton dust, benzene, formaldehyde, asbestos and lead in construction.

Harwood grants are the only OSHA program that provide hands-on training to workers. More than 2.1 million workers in dangerous jobs have been trained since 1978. There are two types of Harwood grants — multi-year Capacity Building grants that enable organizations to build their own safety and health structure, and Targeted Training Grants, that provide one or two year grants on specific subjects, such as new OSHA standards or more current problems that need to be addressed like trench collapses or grain facility suffocation.  Over the 40 years the grants have been in existence, the total amount has never gone far over $10 million.

Vulnerable Workers

The true value of the Harwood program is that it is able to provide effective training to vulnerable workers and others who OSHA inspectors and compliance assistance staff can not otherwise reach.  These workers — low wage workers, day laborers, workers whose first language is not English and others who may not have a regular employer who is willing or able to provide the training in the hazards these workers experience — learn about how to make their workplaces safe and about their legal rights. Many of their employers are hostile to workers who complain about unsafe conditions or who get injured, and the workers have no other access to information health and safety information. These workers often do not know how to address the hazards they face every day. They don’t know their legal rights, how to contact OSHA or that the agency even exists.

Other grants go to business associations that represent small businesses that can’t afford their own training, or colleges and universities who not only train their own students, but vulnerable workers in their areas.

Most of the programs also contain “train-the-trainer” programs, where the initial trainees go on to train other workers, multiplying the effect of the training for generations of workers. Furthermore, to leverage the effect of the grants, OSHA makes available to the public all materials created by the grantees.


The President’s “skinny budget” proposes to eliminate the “unproven” program and instead “focusing the agency on its central work of keeping workers safe on the job.”  Actually, evidence shows that the program has been highly successful and has proven effective in protecting the lives of this country’s most vulnerable workers. Some of its success stories can be found here .

The origin of this “unproven” allegation and the proposal to eliminate the grant program comes from the Heritage Foundation in their FY 2018  budget “Blueprint” which alleges that “Despite existing for decades, OSHA does not have any credible evidence that these training grants are effective. Case in point is the FY 2015 Department of Labor performance report that relies solely on the number of people trained to assess performance of the grant program. The number of people trained provides no information for determining whether trainees learned anything new to make workplaces safer.”

The Heritage report is correct in stating that the number of employees trained doesn’t determine whether they learned anything to make their workplaces safer. But they are absolutely wrong in stating that there is no evidence that the grants are effective, and absolutely wrong is stating that performance relies “solely” on the number of people trained.  Grantees are assessed on their entire program — the number of workers trained, training materials completed, financial and administrative integrity and the evaluations that they conduct to determine the effectiveness of their training.

The program requires each grantee to conduct three levels of evaluation 1) training session reaction assessments; 2) learning assessments; and 3) training impact assessments. The evaluations measure satisfaction with the training courses themselves, what was actually learned, and most important, an assessment conducted three to six months after the training that measure such factors as the level of worker involvement on safety committees, increases in the number of problems raised with managers or formal complaints filed, and increases in sharing safety and health information with co-workers who did not participant in training.

Almost two-thirds of trainees said that “hazards at the workplace have been corrected” and more than half said that “We are more effective in getting health and safety problems addressed.”

One union found, for example, that 98% of trainees had “tried to make improvements in health and safety and/or be more involved in safety and health activities in your workplace ” as a result of the training. Almost two-thirds said that “hazards at the workplace have been corrected” and more than half said that “We are more effective in getting health and safety problems addressed.”

In addition to the reports from the grantees, there have also been scholarly studies on the effectiveness of the type of training that the Harwood grants provide. A groundbreaking 2015 survey of 4,387 low-wage workers in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago by UCLA and the California Department of Industrial Relations found that workers who had received health and safety training on the job had significantly better injury outcomes that those who had not received training—they were more likely to receive medical care, more likely to notify their employers of injury, less likely to encounter a negative reaction from employers, more likely to receive workers’ comp paperwork, and more likely to file for workers comp.

The study concluded that “It is worth noting that health and safety training appears to serve as a protective mechanism within this survey sample, encouraging more workers to come forward with their injuries and fewer employers to react with threats or discouragement.”

Alternative Means?

OSHA states in its FY 2018 Congressional Budget Justification (CBJ) that it will use “alternative methods to develop and deliver training to reach the broadest possible audience.”

What are these “alternative methods?” They don’t actually exist. The  CBJ just lists current OSHA compliance assistance programs like Alliances, Strategic Partnerships and On-site Consultation. According to the CBJ, “Training and outreach programs delivered directly by the agency can provide the same type of information currently delivered through the training grants more efficiently.” In reality, these  long existing OSHA programs that provide little, if any, hands-on training to workers, and there has been no evaluation of what little training they do provide.

When Congressman Mark Pocan (D-WI) asked Acosta during his House appropriations hearing why the President was proposing to eliminate the  Harwood Program, Acosta attempted to explain that his budget proposed to make up for the almost 11 million lost in the Harwood grants by adding $4 million to OSHA’s federal compliance assistance budget. Aside from the basic math problem (subtracting $11 million and adding $4 million still leaves you $7 million short), the $4 million added to OSHA’s compliance assistance budget will not serve the same purpose as the Harwood Grants.

The main purpose of adding money to the federal Compliance Assistance Budget, according to Acosta,  is to add Compliance Assistance Specialists (CAS’s). This is not a bad thing. CAS’s, who are mostly located in OSHA’s Area Offices, provide assistance, mostly to employers, usually in the form of speeches and presentations to industry associations or other organizations. Their existence allows compliance officers to focus exclusively on enforcement. CAS’s are also the main staff that work on bringing in new Voluntary Protection Program participants and re-approving current VPP participants to ensure that they still deserve to be part of the program. But CAS’s don’t provide the same kind of worker training that the Harwood grants provide, and don’t reach the same audiences of vulnerable workers.

Union Slush Fund?

Ultimately, the opposition to Harwood boils down to anti-union and anti-worker bias. A recent article by the anti-worker, anti-union Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) called the Harwood program a “union slush fund” because some of the money goes to labor unions.  Much of the CEI article is based on a 2002 Heritage Foundation report. The report contains no substantive discussion about workplace safety or debate about the merits of different strategies to protect workers. Instead, the report states that

From 1996 through 2000, the DOL used the Harwood grants to transfer at least $1.3 million in taxpayer money to such organizations as the AFL-CIO; the Association of Federal, State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); and the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Giving this money to such groups frees dues money for the lobbying activities of a few select organizations.

The opposition to Harwood boils down to anti-union and anti-worker bias.

In other words, the focus of CEI and Heritage is purely on weakening unions and their ability to lobby. And just to ensure that even the most vulnerable, unorganized workers also have no means of support, the CEI also goes after Worker Centers as well.

Actually, the grants do go to labor unions and worker centers, but also to colleges, universities and business associations. Take a look at last year’s grantees. (here and here). You will find unions like AFSCME and the Steelworkers, but also business associations like the National Association of Tower Erectors, the Associated General Contractors, the Timber Products Manufacturers and the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries.

You will find colleges and universities like Rutgers, the University of Puerto Rico and Western Iowa Tech Community College, along with worker centers like the Brazilian Worker Center, Boat People SOS, Worker Justice Center of New York and Asian Health Services.

Money-wise, business associations received almost as much as labor unions, and colleges and universities received far more than either of those categories.

What Can You Do?

As we’ve said before, your Senators and Congresspersons will need to know that workers will get hurt and die if the Harwood grants are eliminated.  And if you live in a district or state with members on the Appropriations Committees, your voice is especially important.  The main message:

Fund the Harwood Grants

  • Harwood grants have trained more than 2.1 million workers in dangerous jobs since 1978.
  • Harwood grants provide resources to non-profits (universities, unions, small business associations, worker rights groups) to provide hands-on training to small businesses and vulnerable workers.
  • Evaluations have proven them effective in saving lives and preventing injuries and illnesses.
  • The program is tiny: less than $11 million, or  0.0002 percent of the overall budget

Who Do I Contact?

Contact your Congressperson. If you live in any of the districts represented by members of the Appropriations Committee, it is especially important that you contact your members.

House of Representatives Labor, Health and Human Services and Related Agencies


  • Tom Cole, Oklahoma, Chairman
  • Mike Simpson, Idaho
  • Steve Womack, Arkansas, Vice Chair
  • Chuck Fleischmann, Tennessee
  • Andy Harris, MD, Maryland
  • Martha Roby, Alabama
  • Jaime Herrera Beutler, Washington
  • John Moolenaar, Michigan


  • Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut, Ranking Member
  • Lucille Roybal-Allard, California
  • Barbara Lee, California
  • Mark Pocan, Wisconsin
  • Katherine Clark, Massachusetts
7 thoughts on “Killing the Harwood Program Means Killing Workers”
  1. Hi Jordan, killing the Susan Harwood grants would be a major mistake to say the least. It is a gauntlet that ASSE should take up and have the hard working, smart and energetic women at the WISE group handle it. It is right up their alley and they are always willing to take on a righteous fight. Kelly Bernish is the person to speak with. She is the Safety Director for Ft. Collins, Colorado and a major activist and advocate. Let me know if you want me to assist in this.
    Happy rest of the summer. Cindy

  2. Why is Susan grant money going to union groups that fund Democrats. How much more shady, back door funding do they need? If this is about enriching the safety culture then why is grant money being used to enrich the war coffers for Dems?

    Rob 17+ years in Safety, OTI & C-MESH

    1. No Susan Harwood grant money goes to funding any politicians, political action or lobbying. It’s forbidden and strictly enforced.

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