Remarks by Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis
National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety
April 14, 2010
Good afternoon...buenas tardes.
Thank you Dolores for that introduction.
I want to thank Dolores for her courage to fight for workers rights and for being a strong advocate for some of the most vulnerable in our country - and those are the farm workers.
I want to thank and acknowledge my Assistant Secretary for OSHA Dr. (David) Michaels.
I know that you are the right person to steer OSHA back toward an emphasis on protecting workers after eight years of lax oversight.
This is the first such conference focusing on Latino worker safety....change certainly has come.
The staff at OSHA has done a stellar job of putting this summit together and I want to thank them for their hard work.
I also want to thank all of our guest speakers who are joining us over the course of this summit.
And I want to thank all of you for being here for this important conference.
Many of you are on the front lines in your communities and it is vital that we work together to address the very serious topic of worker protection and safety.
The last few weeks have been very difficult ones for workplace safety in this country.
Six killed at the Tesoro Anacortes refinery in Washington, followed by the terrible mine tragedy in West Virginia where we lost 29 brave souls.
This must stop.
But every day in this country is a tragedy for American workers and families.
Every day in this country, more than 14 workers lose their lives in preventable workplace incidents - close to 100 every week.
The Latino community is also touched, losing 14 workers every week.
The need for enforcement and oversight can no longer be regulated to the snail pace of the past!
It is the right time to lift up workers rights and make this situation better.
My vision for the Department of Labor is to provide good jobs for everyone - everyone, from business offices to field and construction workers.
Women, African-Americans, Latinos, as well as other immigrant groups and low-skilled workers need our protection!
Everyone deserves to earn a living wage, be in a safe working environment and thrive.
We know that most employers - including those of you in this room today - want to do the right thing and protect their employees.
But there are still far too many employers who would cut corners and endanger workers. Workers in these companies need OSHA to do its job and do it well.
It is my mission to use the tools of government to make sure that happens.
OSHA only has about 1,000 inspectors, and the states who run their own state plans have about the same number.
That means it would take over 130 years to inspect every single one of the 8 million workplaces in this country just once.
Clearly OSHA can't do it alone; even if our budget were doubled or tripled.
So we have to leverage our resources - through large fines that send a message to every workplace that cutting corners on worker safety won't be tolerated.
And we leverage our resources by making sure that workers have a voice in the workplace, that they are fully involved in ensuring their workplaces are safe.
Who better can determine whether a job is safe or not than a worker who has thoroughly trained in workplace safety.
Who better can police the workplace to prevent unscrupulous employers from endangering workers than those workers themselves?
I'm talking about those workers who feel safe and secure in exercising their rights under the occupational safety and health act - which should be all workers!
It has now been over a year since I took office.
And we've been hard at work sending the message that preventable workplace death and injury will not be tolerated by this administration.
OSHA recently issued the largest fine in OSHA history - $87 million - to a little company down the road named British Petroleum for their failure to address many of the issues raised following the 2005 explosion at the plant that killed 15 workers.
Today, in the audience, we have Katherine Gonzales Rodriguez whose father Raymundo Gonzales was killed at the same plant in 2004.
Thank you for being here and supporting this Summit!
Workers all across this country, especially immigrant workers, continue to face dangerous workplace conditions.
Let me give you just one example of what can happen to immigrant workers.
Last month, OSHA cited a company over $200,000 after a Latina woman was crushed to death after being caught in a paving machine she was cleaning.
She had not been trained on how to clean the machinery safely and had not been given the manual to read.
When the supervisor was asked why the employees had not been provided with the manual, he replied that the manual was not shared because a majority of the employees speak Spanish and could not read.
But when the OSHA inspector took 15 minutes to get the manufacturers safety rules translated, he found that both operators could read, but had never seen the operator's manual before.
The employer had failed to share the safety information with employees because he figured since they were Latino, therefore couldn't speak English and couldn't read.
This defies logic and is reprehensible!
That is why we have national emphasis programs and different targeting formulas.
But the best way to identify unsafe workplaces is when workers have been trained to recognize unsafe conditions and report them to OSHA.
We need standards that address the hazards, but we need a faster way to issue those standards.
We need a system where employers themselves have an obligation to recognize and address all hazards in their workplaces without having OSHA visit them first.
We need to beef up our compliance assistance services so that every worker in - including those for whom English may not be a first language - understands the hazards they face, what their rights are and how to use them.
And we need to make sure that employers have the information they need, so no employer can have the excuse that they didn't know OSHA standards or safe work practices.
All workers need and deserve a safe workplace.
And our OSHA protections apply to every worker in the United States, including those who are undocumented.
Working in this country illegally may be against the law, but it is not a death sentence.
So, for those in this country who think that federal resources should not be spent protecting the safety of undocumented worker, I ask you - Would that make hiring undocumented workers more or less attractive to dishonest employers?
And what would having two classes of workers mean to those employees working legally?
If we say to an employer that one group of workers is not covered by any workplace safety laws or workers comp benefits, but that another is, doesn't that undermine safety and security for everyone?
The answer is yes!
I also want to assure everyone that OSHA will continue to react swiftly to disturbing workplace safety trends.
Last year, we launched a sweep through the Texas Construction industry in response to a tragic rise in workplace fatalities.
OSHA brought inspectors from all across the country to conduct nearly 900 inspections throughout the state, resulting in almost 1,500 citations and fines totaling close to $2 million.
And most important, community groups tell us that everywhere they look following the sweep, construction employers are now paying more attention to safety.
But still, too many workers, especially Latino workers do not report violations.
Many fear that they will lose their job or they fear discipline whenever they suffer an injury.
And even worse, some fear getting fired or blacklisted for filing an OSHA compliant.
In order to encourage workers to speak up and educate them on their workplace rights, we are launching a public awareness campaign.
I would like to take a moment to show you what our public service announcements will look like. Please turn your attention to the television monitors.
[OSHA PSA will play]
They are great, don't you think?
While we are pleased with these efforts, we still have much more work to do to protect workers.
For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Act has language forbidding discrimination against workers for exercising their health and safety rights.
And there are many other laws that provide much better defenses for whistleblowers.
But that language is almost 40 years old and is very difficult for workers to use.
That is why I am urging Congress to pass the Protecting Americas Workers Act.
The Act would give vulnerable workers more security when they speak out to defend their lives.
The Act would also raise penalties and make it a felony when a workers death or serious injury results from a willful violation instead of what it is now - a misdemeanor.
It is increasingly clear that if OSHA doesn't do its job, workplaces cannot be safe.
And OSHA works best when workers are involved.
I am pleased to announce a number of new worker training initiatives that will be implemented by OSHA.
Right now, OSHA currently requires that training provisions under OSHA standards be provided in a language or a form that the workers can understand.
OSHA further requires that its Compliance Officers check and verify that workers have received the training required by OSHA standards.
And effective on April 28th, OSHA will assure that its Compliance Officers check and verify not only that the training has been provided, but that it was provided in a format that the workers being trained can understand.
And in dealing with the construction industry, OSHA will launch a pilot program.
I will be sending a letter to the mayors of ten cities, asking each one to have the city building inspector's work jointly with OSHA.
I am proposing that OSHA will work with and train building inspectors to notify us when they observe, during the course of their building inspection work, unsafe work conditions.
And while we are launching these new training initiatives, we will strengthen the Susan Harwood Training Grant program.
We are expanding this program to a 4-year capacity building grant program for non-profit organizations.
This will help many organizations build permanent workplace safety and health capacity throughout all levels.
We will also announce a new grant category that will allow smaller worker-oriented organizations with little health and safety experience - like many here today - to conduct needs assessments and launch pilot programs to determine their need for a larger, longer term grant.
All of these initiatives will help.
But our focus this week is to ensure that workers understand that they have a basic right to a safe workplace.
Workers have the right to know what a safe workplace looks like and what hazards they are facing.
They have a right to talk to their employer about unsafe conditions, and if necessary call OSHA.
They have a right to get safety equipment that is required by the law and paid for by the employer.
They have a right to be trained in a language and in a way that they understand.
Workers need to know how to use these rights and not fear retaliation.
And finally, every worker needs to know that they have the right to come home alive at the end of the day.
We have invited community groups who work with Latino workers, day laborers and others who work in high-risk jobs because they need to understand these rights.
We have invited company representatives to explain how they have succeeded in reaching out to their Latino employees.
We have invited unions and business representatives to tell us about innovative training and outreach techniques.
We have invited our own OSHA staff to learn from the community groups, businesses, and unions about the struggles faced by Latino workers and how to work with them.
This is an ambitious undertaking, but one that I know we are all up to fulfilling.
Y para todos los trabajadores les quiero decir que tienen derechos - documentado o no.
Y nosotros te podemos ayudar!
Thank you again for being here and I look forward to working with all of you.