The U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate gave final approval to fiscal appropriations for 2012 that continue funding for the Education and Research Centers (ERCs) Program within the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

This important decision ensures that ERCs will be funded in 2012 at the same level as 2011 – including millions of dollars in funding that will be used to help train tomorrow’s specialists in occupational and environmental medicine.

Earlier this year, when policy makers in Washington D.C. proposed terminating this program, ACOEM contacted congressional leaders to urge them to protect funding for ERCs. We applaud the final decision of the House and the Senate to retain ERC funding – a vital source of support for residency programs that train OEM physicians. It was the right thing to do.

The ERCs were established to support academic institutions to develop or expand occupational health and safety training programs and promote occupational safety and health research. Unlike almost every other major medical specialty, OEM does not receive residency funding support from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. That makes NIOSH funding critically important.

While it is good news that NIOSH funding has been extended for 2012, it is important to note that overall funding for OEM residencies is still inadequate and uncertain. OEM specialists are needed today more than ever before, but residency funding is not keeping pace.

At a time of increasing rates of chronic disease and spiraling health-cost expenditures in the workplace, the presence of OEM physicians is vital. OEM physicians work with employers of all sizes and types to develop and implement strategies that lower health risks, reduce the burden of illness, improve wellness and human performance, reduce workplace illness and injury, and enhance the quality of life for both workers and their families, while reducing total health-related costs. It is important to protect residency funding to ensure that there are enough OEM physicians.

Likewise, there is a need to advocate forcefully for federal educational funding needed to support and expand the nation’s OEM specialists. The health and productivity of our national workforce depends on it.