Shutdown Letdowns

Partial government closure increases quality, safety risk

As the clock wound down on Sept. 30 and lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on the U.S. federal budget and President Obama’s healthcare overhaul, the country prepared for its first government shutdown in 17 years.

Initially, many Americans may have felt mostly unaffected by the shutdown, particularly if they weren’t one of the 800,000 nonessential federal employees who were furloughed, a government contractor or someone who relied on government services on a regular basis.1

What many didn’t realize was that the partial shutdown also sidelined thousands of inspectors and regulators who monitor and manage safety and quality in various industries. While federal law requires agencies to retain workers whose jobs are considered necessary to protect life and property, the shutdown forced most regulatory agencies to begin operating with a skeletal staff—increasing the chances of missing a potential hazard.2

“The risks are going up every day,” said Ronald White, director of regulatory policy at the Center for Effective Government, a Washington-based watchdog group. “These are under-the-radar kind of effects that are not clearly obvious to the person on the street.”3

Within just 10 days of the government’s closure, certain events signaled the importance of processes that maintain safety and quality, and revealed potential consequences of not having these regulatory procedures in place at full force.

Salmonella outbreak sickens hundreds

A week into the shutdown, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a public health alert due to concerns that illnesses caused by strains of salmonella Heidelberg were associated with raw chicken products from Foster Farms at three of its California facilities.4

Concerns already were circulating about how food recalls or illness outbreaks would be handled during the shutdown. Most federal meat and poultry inspectors kept their jobs—87% of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services employees continued to work—although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for 80% of the food supply, halted routine food inspections.5

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was significantly hampered in tracing illness outbreaks due to the shutdown of PulseNet, a network of public health laboratories that looks for trends and matches to spot foodborne illness outbreaks.6 Each year, PulseNet monitors about 250 clusters of foodborne diseases. At the time of the shutdown, the agency was tracking more than 30 clusters of illnesses. During the shutdown, just one person— instead of eight—monitored important pathogens such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria, and another person monitored Listservs and data systems to inform of outbreaks and investigations—a job usually performed by five people.7

“The long and short of it is that there is only a skeleton crew at CDC to respond to any kind of outbreak,” Scott Becker, director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, said when the shutdown began. “It’s awful for public health.”8

Days later, consumers of Foster Farms’ chicken began to fall ill. As of Oct. 8, 278 people in 18 states were sickened. To make matters worse, the outbreak involved seven strains of salmonella—some resistant to commonly used antibiotics. It hospitalized 42% of sufferers, which is high compared to the usual 20% hospitalization rate for victims of salmonella Heidelberg, said CDC spokesperson Barbara Reynolds.9

“That means more people are going to the hospital, and their infections will be harder for physicians to treat,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.10

“This outbreak shows that it is a terrible time for government public health officials to be locked out of their offices and labs, and for government websites to go dark,” DeWaal said.11

Following news of the outbreak, CDC director Thomas Frieden determined that not having PulseNet resulted in “an imminent threat to health and safety,” and seven staffers were allowed to return to work.12

An electric car ignites, recalls halted

Normally, if a vehicle goes up in flames, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which investigates safety complaints and orders carmakers to recall vehicles, would travel to the scene. But when a Tesla Model S electric car’s battery pack ignited in Washington state after it struck metal debris, that wasn’t the case because NHTSA field investigations had been put on hold.13

On Sept. 30, the NHTSA posted a notice on its website stating it would not be announcing new auto-related recalls and evaluating safety complaints during the shutdown.

According Joan Claybrook, safety advocate and former head of the NHTSA, the agency releases about 700 auto recalls per year affecting 20 million vehicles. For every workday lost to the furloughs from the shutdown, an average of three recalls covering 80,000 vehicles are delayed indefinitely, she said.14

Automakers can announce their own recalls during the shutdown. For example, on Oct. 9, General Motors recalled its 2014 pickups after it was discovered that the seat backs might not hold up if the truck is hit from behind.15

Still, Claybrook said, the NHTSA’s inability to function at capacity could be life threatening.

“Safety is being undermined,” she said. “If unsafe cars are on the highway, if the agency isn’t operating so it can’t put out consumer alerts, if it can’t finish up a recall notice that it wants to publish or negotiate with an auto company they want to do a recall, that puts the public at risk.”16

Others affected
Along with auto and food safety, many other regulatory functions are experiencing a higher level of risk associated with furloughed employees and hampered operations. Some examples include:

Workplace safety. At the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which inspects workplaces, 230 of 2,235 workers are on the job—only enough staff to respond to complaints with “a high risk of death or serious physical harm,” according to OSHA’s shutdown plan.

Anti-pollution efforts. Ninety-four percent of Environmental Protection Agency employees are furloughed, placing inspections of water treatment plants and industrial sites on hold, as well as some work cleaning up hazardous chemicals.

Nursing home care oversight. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, routine federal inspections to examine safety, clinical care and medication being administered at nursing homes aren’t being conducted.

Nuclear plant oversight. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission had been using carryover funding to remain open for the first week of the shutdown, but then closed, keeping only enough staff to respond to emergencies.17

Mine inspections. With about 40% of its staff working, the Mine Safety and Health Administration conducted limited mine inspections. Days after the shutdown began, three coal mine fatalities occurred—the first time the industry saw three consecutive days of fatal accidents in a decade.18

What next?

At press time, the U.S. government remained shut down, although some workers are being called back to their jobs.

“They are trying to bring back folks when there is a crisis,” said Tim Kauffman, spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees.19
How long the shutdown will last, or the longer-term effects it will have in the United States and around the globe, remain to be seen. What most can agree on, however, is hampered operations of many of the nation’s regulatory agencies does, in fact, present a risk to safety and quality. Until an agreement is reached, and processes and procedures resume full function, no one knows what could happen next. 

—Amanda Hankel, assistant editor


  1. Kevin G. Hall, “Shutdown Will Mean Furloughs, Fewer Services, and Closed Museums and Parks,” McClatchy Washington Bureau, Sept. 30, 2013, www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/09/30/203699/shutdown-would-mean-furloughs.html.
  2. Jim Snyder, Brian Wingfield and Mark Drajem, “Furloughed Inspectors Leave Gaps in Safety Oversight,” Bloomberg, www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-10-09/furloughed-inspectors-leave-gaps-in-safety-oversight.html.
  3. Ibid.
  4. United Press International, “278 Salmonella Illnesses Blamed on Foster Farms,” Oct. 7, 2013, www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2013/10/07/278-salmonella-illnesses-blamed-on-Foster-Farms/UPI-28731381192221 (case sensitive).
  5. Helena Bottemiller Evich and Tarini Parti, “Government Shutdown Stresses Food Inspections,” Politico, Oct. 2, 2013, www.politico.com/story/2013/10/government-shutdown-food-inspectors-agriculture-97691.html.
  6. Elizabeth Weise, “New Salmonella Outbreak in Chicken Resists Antibiotics,” USA Today, Oct. 8, 2013, www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/10/08/salmonella-chicken-outbreak/2941783.
  7. Evich, “Government Shutdown Stresses Food Inspections,” see reference 5.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Weise, “New Salmonella Outbreak in Chicken Resists Antibiotics,” see reference 6.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. U.S. Official News, “Tesla Says Car Fire Began in Battery,” Oct. 4, 2013, Quality News Today, http://asq.org/qualitynews/qnt/execute/displaySetup?newsID=17053.
  14. Joan Lowy, “Auto Recalls on Hold During Govt Shutdown,” Associated Press, Oct. 10, 2013, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory/auto-recalls-hold-govt-shutdown-20526499.
  15. James R. Healey, “New GM Pickups Recalled for Possible Seat Failure,” USA Today, Oct. 9, 2013, http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/cars/2013/10/09/gm-general-motors-chevrolet-silverado-gmc-sierra-recall-seat-failure/2955301.
  16. Lowy, “Auto Recalls on Hold During Govt Shutdown,” see reference 14.
  17. Snyder, “Furloughed Inspectors Leave Gaps in Safety Oversight,” see reference 2.
  18. John Bacon and Natalie DiBlasio, “Shutdown Puts Squeeze on Health, Safety,” USA Today, Oct. 9, 2013, www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/10/08/federal-furloughs-health-and-safety/2944897.
  19. Marisol Bello and John Bacon, “Number of Furloughed Workers Shrinks as Shutdown Drags On,” USA Today, Oct. 10, 2013, www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/10/09/shutdown-furloughs-return-to-work/2953191/ 5.



Decision to allow some Chinese-processed poultry into U.S. raises concerns

Consumer safety advocates think U.S. regulators might be setting the table for future contamination outbreaks following a recent ease in restrictions covering some Chinese poultry processors.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began allowing four processing plants in China to ship a limited amount of poultry to the United States. The birds would be raised and slaughtered in the United States, Canada or Chile (the only countries approved by the USDA), but processed in China and sold back into the American market.

Some think this development will eventually expand the rules—as soon as a year from now—so chickens and turkeys actually bred in China could end up in U.S. grocery cases and restaurants.

"This is the first step toward allowing China to export its own domestic chickens to the U.S." said Tony Corbo, the senior lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, an advocacy group that promotes food safety.

The Chinese facilities will verify that cooked products exported to the United States came from American birds, so no USDA inspector will be present in the plants. Because the poultry will only be processed there, it will not require a "Made in China" label. That means U.S. consumers eating frozen chicken nuggets from a grocery store or a chicken sandwich from a fast-food restaurant will not know whether the chicken came from a Chinese processing plant.

Because of China’s recent history with food safety lapses, nervousness about this regulatory move is not surprising. The country has had frequent outbreaks of the deadly avian influenza. Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tied the deaths of more than 500 dogs and a handful of cats to chicken jerky treats that came from China. The food was eventually recalled, but not before it sickened another 2,500 animals.

"Previous USDA poultry inspections revealed conditions in China that could put American consumers at risk," Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), one of the most vocal critics of allowing Chinese chicken in the United States, said in a statement. "Even if a one-off visit shows an improved environment, there will be no U.S. inspector continually present when chicken is being processed for export to the U.S. I continue to remain deeply concerned that trade interests will trump public health at the end of this process."

USDA officials defended the approvals, saying the Chinese processors provided sufficient evidence and met the proper requirements.

Al Almanza, administrator of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), said the four processing plants were audited and cleared by inspectors earlier this year to process U.S.-origin chicken and sell it back into the American market.

During the March audit, the FSIS sought to determine whether the Chinese government provides sufficient, consistent oversight at poultry plants. The FSIS also created mock situations to test the plant personnel and quizzed supervisors to see whether they were now properly trained on the reformed hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP), how to test for salmonella and listeria, and what to do in the case of contamination. By the end of the inspection, China was given the green light to certify the four poultry plants that will export processed poultry to the United States.

"If we were to determine that their system is equivalent [to U.S. plants], why wouldn’t it be?" Almanza said. "It’s the same [set of standards] we use for any other country. We’re not treating China any differently in determining equivalency for exporting to the United States."

Processed poultry is currently imported to the United States from five other countries: Canada, Chile, France, Israel and Mexico.

Almanza acknowledged more must be done before the USDA approves China for exporting its own chicken. "There are some issues that still need to be addressed" to establish equivalency between poultry plants in the United States and China, he said.

An FSIS spokeswoman said imported raw poultry is audited through a different audit team, and is not related to the auditing of processed chicken.



Borawski, ASQ CEO, Announces Retirement

ASQ CEO Paul Borawski has announced plans to retire in May 2014.

"I was proud of the organization I joined (in 1986), and proud of the organization ASQ has become," Borawski said in his announcement. "ASQ’s mission and vision have provided for a career of immense inspiration and satisfaction."

ASQ’s executive council is developing a hiring strategy that will include an external search firm, said John Timmerman, chair of ASQ’s board of directors. Borawski also will play an active role in the selection of a new CEO.

"Paul is committed to the success of ASQ and continuity of a CEO succession process," Timmerman said. "Paul’s departure is much more than a retirement because he has imprinted a legacy and was the chief architect in the growth of ASQ."

Borawski joined ASQ in 1986 as director of technical activities and served as executive director, executive director and chief strategic officer, and CEO.

Borawski said he hopes to spend time with friends and family and to "enjoy several long-postponed adventures" during retirement.


Smaller Organizations Closer
To Their Customers

Smaller organizations tend to be more open with customers regarding the quality of their products and services than larger organizations are, and most quality professionals who hold senior positions report directly to their CEOs.

These are just a couple results from the second installment of ASQ’s Global State of Quality Research, which was released last month. Specifically, the "Analysis, Trends and Opportunities 2013" report revealed:

  • Of organizations with annual revenues of less than $100 million, 85% work closely with customers to understand the performance of their products compared with just 72.6% of organizations with revenues of more than $10 billion.
  • Nearly 75% of organizations with annual revenues of less than $100 million share service or product quality performance data with customers, while only 60% of organizations with more than $10 billion in revenue share do so. According to the data, 67.3% of all respondents share product or service quality with their customers.
  • Nearly 75% of all organizations surveyed said their senior quality position reports directly to the CEO or equivalent.
  • About 46% of manufacturing organizations report quality measures to frontline staff daily, while almost 17% of service organizations report quality measures to frontline staff at the same frequency. Nearly 23% of services organizations share no quality measures with frontline staff, compared with less than 5% of manufacturing organizations.

ASQ partnered with the American Productivity and Quality Center to conduct and manage the research and reports. The first report, "Discoveries 2013," was unveiled at ASQ’s World Conference on Quality and Improvement in May. A third report, titled "Insights, Case Study Reports and Continuing Conversations," will be released later this year.

ASQ will release a series of "spotlight" reports beginning this month that will provide details and context from industry leaders on specific topics, including the role of the customer in the quality process, the culture of quality, and training and competencies. The reports are based on data collected from 1,991 organizations in 22 countries.

To find all the reports, visit www.globalstateofquality.org.

Who’s Who in Q

NAME: Teresa L. Pratt.


EDUCATION: MBA from Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio.

CURRENT JOB: Corporate quality director at Verizon Telematics in Atlanta, responsible for overall product quality, creating the infrastructure for the business management system (total business system vs. quality management system), and teaching and managing the internal auditing program.

INTRODUCTION TO QUALITY: When Pratt worked in inside sales at a metal stamping company, she spent some time with the stamping operators so she could learn how they produced a quality product. This helped her better serve customers. Later, she visited the quality department to see how it tested products. As a salesperson, these experiences were valuable because she could understand the needs of customers beyond receiving their orders.

PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE: Her work at Plexus International as a service provider and technical reviewer allowed her to share with and learn from hundreds of quality professionals; Delphi Corp. and the automotive industry gave her many lessons about ISO/TS16949, Six Sigma and lean enterprise.

ASQ ACTIVITIES: Pratt has been a part of ASQ Automotive Division for many years and is the former chair of Automotive Excellence magazine.

RECENT AWARDS: Pratt was included in the 2012 class of ASQ fellows.

PERSONAL: Married and has two dogs.

FAVORITE WAY TO RELAX: Watching crime investigation TV shows.

QUALITY QUOTE: Quality begins with a methodical thought process and ends with an effective enterprise solution.


Get Ready to Celebrate

Organizers of the fourth-annual World Quality Month, which takes place in November, have issued a call for content to quality professionals around the world, asking them to submit stories that illustrate the value of quality principles.

Again this year, a special website dedicated to the month-long celebration will feature stories about the impact of quality on quality professionals’ lives or organizations. The site, http://asq.org/world-quality-month, includes a tool kit to assist quality professionals in promoting awareness of this month, as well as ways to plan and promote their own World Quality Month events.

The website, supported by ASQ, also will feature videos and links to success stories from individuals, companies and organizations around the world to share with colleagues. For more information about events, resources and other contributions, visit the website or email the celebrations’ organizers at worldqualitymonth@asq.org.

ASQ News

NEW ENTERPRISE MEMBERS Microsoft, PepsiCo and AbbVie, a research-based biopharmaceutical company, have become ASQ latest enterprise members, joining 46 other organizations at this membership level. Visit http://asq.org/membership/organizations/current-members.html for more information about enterprise membership.

SCHOLARSHIP AWARDED ASQ has awarded its Richard A. Freund International Scholarship to Kaibo Liu, a Georgia Institute of Technology student working toward a doctoral degree in industrial engineering. Liu, of China, was awarded the $5,000 scholarship, which is named after a past ASQ president and supports a quality professional’s graduate studies.

AWARD RECIPIENT NAMED David Devoe, operations manager and general manager of Plymouth Spring Co. in Bristol, CT, has received ASQ Hartford Section’s annual Quality Recognition Award for his helping to establish Plymouth Spring’s lean program. For more information, visit www.asqhartford.org.

By the Numbers


The number of award recipients recently honored by the American Statistical Association at its joint statistical meetings in Montréal. Awards and recipients included:

  • Samuel S. Wilks Memorial Award: Kanti Mardia.
  • Gottfried E. Noether Award: Yingying Fan and Jayaram Sethuraman.
  • Outstanding Statistical Application Award: Robert E. Kass, Ryan C. Kelly and Wei-Liem Loh.
  • Edward C. Bryant Scholarship Trust Fund Award: Natalie Exner.
  • W.J. Dixon Award for Excellence in Statistical Consulting: Ronald D. Snee.
  • Waller Education Award: Nathan Tintle.
  • W.J. Youden Award: Lane F. Burgette and Jerome Reiter.
  • Statistics in Chemistry Award: Peter Goos and Steven G. Gilmour.
  • Karl E. Peace Award for Outstanding Statistical Contributions for the Betterment of Society: Richard Macey Simon.
  • Causality in Statistics Education Award: Felix Elwert.

For more about this year’s recipients, visit http://tinyurl.com/kztdwh7.

Short Runs

THREE HUNDRED SCHOLARSHIPS to help Marine veterans, reservists, active duty personnel and their family members become certified lean Six Sigma Black Belts are being awarded by Leatherneck.com, an online resource for former Marines. Mikel Harry, a Six Sigma pioneer and the board chair and president of the Six Sigma Management Institute, has donated the scholarships. For more details, visit www.leatherneck.com.

THE AMERICAN SOCIETY for Nondestructive Testing will host its annual conference Nov. 4-7 in Las Vegas. The event provides a forum for exchanging theoretical, scientific and application information and to learn about developments in nondestructive testing technology. For more information, visit http://tinyurl.com/otjmgfb.

THE AMERICAN PRODUCTIVITY and Quality Center’s process conference will be held Oct. 21-25 in Houston. For more information, visit www.apqc.org/apqcs-2013-process-conference.

NEW MEMBERS WERE recently appointed to the board of overseers of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program. Robert Hagans, Warren Harris, Terry Holliday and Liza Nickerson Seltzer were named to three-year terms on the board, and Rulon Stacey was appointed board chair. The appointments were made by the secretary of commerce to advise the Department of Commerce on the Baldrige program.

THE NATIONAL PATIENT Safety Foundation has named Tejal K. Gandhi, M.D., as president of the nonprofit research and education organization. Gandhi is chief quality and safety officer at Partners Healthcare in Boston. For more information about her background, visit http://tinyurl.com/oalk29z.


Survey Says More Manufacturing Workers Upbeat on Job Prospects

More than 40% of manufacturing workers said they will look for a new job in the next 12 months, according to the Randstad Manufacturing Employee Confidence Index released last month. The quarterly measure of overall confidence among manufacturing workers increased 0.9 points to 51.9 in the second quarter of 2013.

The number of manufacturing workers who said they believe more jobs are available rose seven percentage points—increasing from 21 to 28% in the second quarter. Yet, fewer employees are confident about the future of their current employers. In fact, this was the sole area in which a decline (47% down from 53%) among manufacturing employees occurred between the first and second quarters of 2013.

"This quarter’s report underscores that manufacturing workers have a real sense of optimism about the number of career opportunities that exist today," said Phyllis Finley, executive vice president at Randstad U.S. "In fact, figures this high have not been reported since well before the 2008 recession, and we believe this increase has a correlation to employees’ confidence in the overall economic recovery."

For more details from the survey, visit www.randstadusa.com/workforce360/jobs-the-economy/manufacturing-employees-confident-and-on-the-move/123.

Average Rating


Out of 0 Ratings
Rate this article

Add Comments

View comments
Comments FAQ

Featured advertisers