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  Secretary Chao on Workplace Safety and Health
 
Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao shares her views about protecting workers.

JSHQ: Accident rates and illness on the job continue to decline. This is great news. Is success in reach? Photo: Chao & Bush

Secretary Chao: It's true that for the 8th year in a row the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported a drop in injuries and illnesses. The new rate is actually the lowest on record-at 6.1 per 100 workers. That said, no accident or fatality is acceptable. As every worker on the job, regardless of industry or occupation, must be protected and kept from harm, we must remain vigilant.

My goal is actually to work even harder to bring these numbers down, and to do it by expanding employer outreach and relying on effective and fair enforcement. Last year, for example, we specifically centered on a number of key industries to help them reduce injuries and illnesses- and it worked. Food processing, nursing homes, shipyards, construction, and logging all witnessed a decline in injuries and illnesses. Across the board, we also saw a decline in two major work-related hazards-exposure to silica and amputations.

Overall, the trends are moving in the right direction. Employers, workers, and professional trade associations all share in the credit. OSHA couldn't have achieved this without their support and "sweat equity."

We can honestly say that we're creating the safest workplaces in the world. Maintaining this momentum will be one of OSHA's major challenges throughout the decade.

JSHQ: Where was OSHA during September 11?

Secretary Chao: When it came to responding to the challenges of the terrorist attacks on our nation, OSHA was definitely in the front lines. Just hours after the attack on the World Trade Center towers, our inspectors were on the scene at Ground Zero, risking their own lives to ensure the safety of rescue workers at the site.

We distributed more than 120,000 respirators and showed rescue and construction workers how to properly use them. We also took more than 5,000 bulk and air samples to help assess health hazards and risks. More than 1,000 federal and state OSHA staffers were on rotation in New York City to provide vital round-the-clock safety and health monitoring.

And when terrorists struck again, this time through anthrax-tainted mail, we also quickly spun into action. Our people worked with the U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. Senate to help decontaminate post office facilities and the Hart Senate Office Building. Because of the ongoing threat, we also reached out to the postal unions and forged an innovative partnership with the Laborers International Union to create new biohazard abatement training. And to further educate and train, we now provide online resources to help both employees and employers assess risk, identify appropriate protective equipment, and create safe work practices.

Homeland security will be at the top of our agenda for some time. The war on terrorism will be a long one, and it will continue to affect the way we live and work. As President George W. Bush said, "This is a war we must fight and win." OSHA is and will remain a key player in that war and protecting the homeland from various threats.

JSHQ: Speaking of the terrorists attacks, what's the situation at Ground Zero?Secretary Elaine L. Chao swears in John L. Henshaw, as the new OSHA Administrator

Secretary Chao: The excavation work at the site seems to be in the final stages, but it continues to be a very perilous task. I am proud to report that after nearly 3 million work hours, only 35 workers at the World Trade Center recovery site suffered injuries that resulted in lost workdays, and thankfully, none of their injuries were life-threatening. This equates to a Lost-Workday Injury and Illness rate of 2.3-about one-half the rate for specialty construction, which includes demolition.

This is a phenomenally low rate given the extraordinary circumstances, and reflects the tremendous effort of everyone involved and the value of the partnership between OSHA, contractors, unions, government agencies, and others. I am eternally grateful that no worker fatalities have been reported. To lose any more lives at the World Trade Center would truly compound this national tragedy.

The World Trade Center disaster site workers deserve the best protection we can offer-and together, we're successfully doing it. This is a significant achievement.

JSHQ: Why do you believe your new ergonomics plan will work?

Secretary Chao: The new plan offers a win-win approach to protecting workers from ergonomic injuries. It's a balanced and comprehensive plan that combines four important components: industry-specific guidelines, tough enforcement measures, workplace outreach, and advanced research. It also includes dedicated efforts to protect Hispanic and other immigrant workers, a population that is particularly vulnerable to ergonomic injuries.

The plan gives the vast majority of employers who want to do the right thing to protect their workers the tools to do so. At the same time, it cracks down hard on the bad actors who don't live up to their legal and moral responsibilities to protect their workers. It gives workers the protections they need and deserve without being overly burdensome to Photo: Chao presentingbusiness.

What I particularly like about the plan is that it's something we can implement now-not after months or even years of legal appeals and court decisions. This plan is a major improvement over the rejected old rule because it will prevent ergonomics injuries before they occur and reach a much larger number of at-risk workers. It's the best way to achieve our goal of reducing ergonomic injuries in the workplace in the shortest possible time frame.

JSHQ: Is OSHA moving away from the more traditional enforcement activities? In short, relying more on the "carrot" than on the "stick"?

Secretary Chao: Let there be no misunderstanding: OSHA's number one priority remains full, effective, and fair enforcement of worker protection laws. In 2001, we conducted nearly 36,000 inspections, with our compliance officers citing some 80,000 violations with proposed penalties of $82 million. For 2003, we actually have a goal of pursuing more OSHA enforcement actions than in recent memory-to nearly 38,000.

But enforcement is one side of the coin when it comes to protecting workers. The other is compliance assistance, emphasizing communication and education. Increased compliance assistance means fewer violations, and that translates into fewer injuries and healthier workers. To help drive compliance assistance throughout the workplace, we've developed a number of exciting initiatives.

First, we're relying on new telecommunications channels to get the word out. Last fall, for example, we made our new recordkeeping rule, along with training, available online. We even made a satellite broadcast on the rule available to over 3,500 sites.

Second, we're expanding our outreach to those traditionally overlooked-mainly small business owners. Last year we held meetings with over 27,000 small businesses, and more than half-a-million employers and employees turned to us for safety and health training.

Third, we're increasing the number of both our strategic and our premier partnerships. Last year alone, we witnessed a 60-percent growth in our strategic partnerships, with over 10,000 employers now participating. Our premier Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) also grew, now encompassing over 180 industries with close to half-a-million employees. These workplaces continue to maintain injury and illness rates more than 50 percent below the national average for their industries. This is a great accomplishment.

JSHQ: As you mentioned earlier, the accident rate is going down, but it seems to be rising among immigrants, especially among Hispanic construction workers. What's happening? Elaine L Chat Credits WTC partnership

Secretary Chao: The fatality rate among Hispanic workers deeply troubles me. I am concerned that Hispanics are more likely than others to be injured on the job because their English is limited or they don't get safety tips or instruction in Spanish. These workers comprise 11 percent of the workforce and yet have a 14 percent fatality rate.

These workers comprise 11 percent of the workforce and yet have a 14 percent fatality rate. To meet this challenge head on, we're working double time in reaching out to Hispanic workers and employers in construction and other key trades. We're translating documents and holding construction safety courses in Spanish. In Forth Worth, Texas, OSHA is actually developing a workplace safety billboard in Spanish. We're also linking up with Hispanic and community-based organizations and groups and pursing a number of creative partnerships.

We've created a special toll-free 24-hour helpline with Spanish speakers to answer questions and take inquiries. We've even expanded our outreach into cyberspace by launching a new OSHA Spanish website that will offer one-stop service for Spanish-speaking employers and employees.

And for employers who willfully disregard worker protections, we will take aggressive action-as we did recently against three New York contractors whose improperly erected scaffolding resulted in the deaths of several Hispanic and other workers.

We are committed to ensuring that all workers are provided safety and health protections.