Remarks As Prepared For
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor
For Occupational Safety and Health
New Jersey Occupational Safety and Health Education Program (OSHEP)
East Brunswick, New Jersey
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Advocating Worker Protection
Thanks to Komilla John [OSHEP Coordinator] and the New Jersey AFL-CIO for inviting me to speak with you.
I also want to thank Hal J. Wirths [Acting Commissioner, New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development], Dr. Adrienne Eaton [Chair of Labor Studies and Employment Relations, and Director of Labor Extension in the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations], Dr. Barry Schlegel [OSHEP Program Director], and Bob Kulick, OSHA's Region II Administrator.
I also extend my best wishes to your new governor Chris Christie and thanks as well to Assistant Labor Commissioner Howard Black, who is responsible for both the statewide public employee safety and health program and the New Jersey's On-site Consultation programs.
These folks are all committed to workplace safety and health while helping business owners succeed. In fact, it should be clear to everyone in this room that businesses can't succeed in the long run without an effective safety and health management program for their workers - and the workshops and presentations at this conference are designed to help.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Assistant Secretary David Michaels send their greetings to everyone who has taken the time to attend this conference.
I'm here today to tell you about the changes going on in OSHA under this new Administration, but also to ask for your support.
If you're here, spending an entire day talking and learning about workplace safety and health, this is clearly a priority for you and your supervisors, union leaders, CEO, or company shareholders - at least, it should be a priority with them.
Many companies do make worker safety and health a priority, but many don't. As a result, more than 5,000 working men and women die on the job every year in America, and tens of thousands more are maimed or become seriously ill because they were not protected by their employer from workplace hazards.
As OSHA moves ahead under new leadership, we're going to be pushing for change in occupational safety and health standards, pushing for change in the cumbersome rulemaking process, and pushing for fundamental changes in how employers and workers think about risk in the workplace
Change means there's going to be a lot of pushing back, too. People don't like change. Yet, no one should have fear dying on the job just to earn a living.
Change is possible - although, unfortunately, most reforms in worker safety and health in the 20th century were a reaction to tragedy. Now we're a decade into a new century, and it's time to move from reaction to prevention.
So, when OSHA proposes changes that are intended to protect workers' lives, we're going to need to hear back from you with support, suggestions, or reasonable and constructive criticism based on your experience and expertise.
OSHA Leadership Update
About two months ago David Michaels walked through OSHA's doors to lead the agency and carry out Secretary Solis' goals and priorities. Secretary Solis has spoken with passion and enthusiasm about ensuring good jobs for every American.
Dr. Michaels is a distinguished scientist at George Washington University and a friend of mine. He has not only an impressive academic record, but also has led the worker health and safety program at the Department of Energy.
He wanted very much to be here with you today, but you can imagine the demanding schedule he has these days as he works to transform OSHA into the responsive, responsible agency it was intended to be.
I also want to mention here how supportive Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has been. From my years inside government and observing from outside, such strong support for OSHA from the Secretary's office has been rare. Much of what we've been able to accomplish, and will be able to accomplish, is because Secretary Solis "gets it" and is pushing us to be more aggressive.
Earlier this month in Washington, we scheduled a day-long forum for stakeholders. We had to postpone our OSHA Listens event due to the "snowmaggedon" pairs of storms. We were expecting a packed room, with many people traveling from around the country.
The good news is that we have rescheduled the forum for a week from tomorrow, Thursday, March 4, in the Department of Labor's building in Washington, D.C. The forum will run from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and we'll Webstream OSHA Listens live on the Internet. Details are on OSHA's Web page.
OSHA planned this public forum as part of President Obama's Open Government initiative. The OSHA Listens event also underscores our agency's commitment to considering our stakeholders' concerns and expertise as we make decisions to protect our Nation's workforce.
New Sheriff in Town
I know you've all heard Secretary Solis' statement that "There's a new sheriff in town." Dr. Michaels and I take this phrase seriously. It isn't an abstract wish; it's a description of how OSHA is now working.
We can see this new focus in the egregious citations OSHA recently issued to a chemical waste processing facility in Houston after it killed a worker in a terrible, preventable explosion - this employer's third fatality in less than a year. The proposed fine in this case is almost $1.5 million.
In Pittsburg we cited a building contractor over half a million dollars after a worker was killed falling off the roof. We later found that workers had been asking for fall protection equipment and, although the employer had the equipment on hand, he refused to allow the workers to use it.
Here in New Jersey, as a result of our National Emphasis Program for Refineries, OSHA issued citations to four refineries in the last year - totaling more than half a million dollars.
It's unfortunate but true that we need to issue a sizable fine to get the attention of employers who do not respect the lives of their workers.
If the threat of a fine isn't enough, we have other ways to drive home the point that employers need to obey the law. Last year, in conjunction with the U.S. Marshal's Service, we conducted the first-ever vehicle seizure in an OSHA whistleblower case. We seized a car from the president of Brocon Petroleum after the company failed to pay $7,500 in back wages to a former employee. The back wages were a result of a consent judgment filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey to resolve a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Labor Department in March 2008. The vehicle was sold in an auction by the U.S. Marshals to recoup their costs. There was enough left over to pay the whistleblower and cover some of OSHA's costs as well.
Under this Administration, OSHA is returning to the original intent of the OSH Act. We're a regulatory and enforcement agency and we're going to act like it. We're also a public health regulatory and enforcement agency. Our authority stems directly from the need to prevent events and exposures that maim and kill American workers.
Faith in government
I wonder how many people here saw or heard about a couple of recent opinion polls - one conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post, and the other by CNN/Opinion Research?
The ABC poll found that two-thirds of Americans are "dissatisfied" or even "angry" about the way the federal government is working - or, more precisely, appears NOT to be working. On average, people feel that 53 cents out of every tax dollar they send to Washington is "wasted."
The CNN poll found that only 26 percent of the public trusts the federal government "most of the time" or "always."
Let's think about this: When most people say they are losing faith in "government," they're probably speaking about the most visible branch of government - the legislative branch... Congress - and the political gridlock that is preventing much of anything from getting done.
Taxpayers are naturally and justifiably frustrated when they don't feel they're getting any government action for their tax dollars, especially in health care reform.
However, in the executive branch of government, agencies under this administration are actually giving taxpayers a very good bang for their buck.
- Agencies are beefing up efforts to provide a cleaner environment, new jobs, and safer and more modern transportation.
- The President's Open Government initiative has directed Agencies to make their functions more transparent and responsive to taxpayers.
- Under new leadership, the Department of Labor has been successful over the last year in advancing protections for workers' rights to fair wages, whistleblowers, and workplace safety.
- We've reinvigorated our standards and rulemaking efforts with an aggressive regulatory agenda - and who but the federal government can set national health and safety standards that will prevent states from issuing weaker regulations that put workers at risk with a race to the bottom?
- We've stepped up enforcement with higher fines and a laser focus on employers who are ignoring the law and not protecting workers - and who but the federal government can issue an $87 million penalty and send a message across the country that we're sick and tired of workers dying and employers not providing safe workplaces?
- We've targeted major workplace safety concerns, such as the high rates Hispanic construction worker injuries and deaths - and who but the federal government can send a message to employers nationwide that putting Hispanic workers in dangerous jobs without proper training and equipment will not be tolerated?!
In every one of these activities, we're striving for common sense solutions that make government efficient and effective, and in every one of these activities, government is working to protect workers and to defend their right to come home to see their families after a day's work.
Even with limited budgets in a tough economy, government agencies are finding ways to deliver more on the promises that taxpayers are expecting their government to keep. This is a message that only you can send.
OSHA's proposed budget for the coming year reflects our commitment to use this authority fairly and effectively. On February 1, Secretary Solis announced the proposed FY 2011 budget for the Department of Labor, including the budget for OSHA.
As the President has said, our country is facing serious budget issues, so we have to be careful about how we spend our money. OSHA's FY 2011 budget calls for $573 million to help OSHA protect 109 million workers nationwide. This is an increase of just $14 million over our current operating budget - not a big increase, but not bad in the context of the President's announcement that the federal discretionary budget would be frozen for the next three years. That shows the value that this Administration puts on workplace safety.
That $14 million includes:
- $4 million to develop standards
- $7.7 million for federal enforcement
- $1.5 million for state-run OSHA programs
- $1 million for the state-based On-site Consultation Program
- A quarter of a million dollars for training grants
The budget request calls for OSHA to hire an additional 25 inspectors in 2011 and to move an additional 35 personnel from compliance assistance activities to enforcement.
Specifically, by scaling back our spending on the Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) and Alliances, OSHA will redirect compliance safety and health officer time previously spent on these compliance-assistance activities to inspections.
Without a doubt, the VPP makes a valuable contribution to workplace safety. Participating companies go above and beyond OSHA requirements, including many with workplace safety and health programs that should serve as a model for the rest of American companies.
However, given the choice of spending our limited resources on either supporting companies that are doing a great job protecting employees, or focusing on employers who willfully disregard workplace safety and allow workers to die in situations that could easily have been prevented - our choice is clear.
Let me be clear. We are not giving up on VPP. In fact, Secretary Solis and Dr. Michaels have committed to look for and implement alterative forms of non-federal funding to maintain and grow VPP into the future.
The shift in resources and additional hiring called for in next year¿s budget will enable OSHA to conduct more than 3,500 additional inspections in FY 2011.
Next year's budget includes an additional $4 million that will help OSHA develop new standards and expedite rulemaking already in progress.
The new budget also calls for adding $1.5 million in increased funding for state plans operating their own OSHA programs. Until the FY 2010 budget, OSHA's State Plan States received little or no annual increase to their funds for a decade, not even inflationary adjustments to cover pay-related increases. Next year's increase addresses some of that inequity for the 27 programs that cover nearly half our Nation's workers. This funding will provide State Plans with the resources needed to do an additional 3,000 inspections in FY 2011.
This budget increase also supports OSHA's efforts begun last year to more closely examine the activities of our state plans. After our investigation into problems with the Nevada state-run OSHA program, Federal OSHA moved in to do a thorough review, and we are taking similar steps with our other state-run programs. Federal OSHA doesn't want to take back these programs; we want them to succeed. By working more closely with the states, we are ensuring that they maintain a high quality of service and operate consistently with federal programs.
OSHA is requesting a $1 million increase in its FY 2011 budget to fund the state-based On-site Consultation Program. As many of you know, this service offers free and confidential advice to small and medium-sized businesses in all states across the country, with priority given to high-hazard worksites.
And here's one last note on the proposed budget: Funding for OSHA's Susan Harwood Worker Training Grant Program remained stagnant for years until a modest increase was provided in the FY 2010 budget. For next year, we are requesting an increase of a quarter of a million dollars for continued recognition of this important program.
OSHA will focus on increasing the number of multi-year grants and improving outreach and training to underserved populations such as immigrants, non-English speaking, and low literacy and low-wage workers.
In September, OSHA awarded nearly $7 million in Harwood Training Grants to 30 recipients, including labor unions and employer associations. In late spring we will announce the availability of funds to award a new round of grants.
OSHA is now focused on re-energizing proposed standards that have been stuck in the pipeline for years. These include:
- cranes and derricks, which we'll publish as a final rule in July - or heads will roll
- a globally harmonized system for chemical labeling
- a standard for confined spaces in construction
- electrical power generation in construction
- as well as new initiatives such as managing dangerous, combustible dust and ensuring compliance with CDC infectious disease guidelines.
I'd like to discuss four items on the Regulatory Agenda that will affect a lot of employers and workers.
First: OSHA has proposed revising its recordkeeping regulation to restore the column for musculoskeletal disorders (MSD's) on the OSHA 300 Log that employers use to record workplace injuries and illnesses. The proposed rule would require employers to check the MSD column if the case is recordable under the regulation's general requirements and the case meets the definition of an MSD.
It appears from press reports that our announcement of this effort may have confused some observers. So, let me be clear: This is not a prelude to a broader ergonomics standard. OSHA is simply restoring the musculoskeletal disorders column to the OSHA 300 log as the recordkeeping standard, issued in 2001, originally intended. MSD's continue to be a major problem for American workers. They're real and they're hurting a lot of people. OSHA believes that putting the MSD column back on the log will improve the Nation's occupational injury and illness statistics as well as provide useful information that workers and employers can use to better identify musculoskeletal disorders in their workplaces.
However, at this time, OSHA has no plans for regulatory activity.
Second: OSHA is revising its Hazard Communication Standard to make it consistent with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals. The new standard will include more specific requirements for hazard classification as well as standardized labels to provide consistent information on hazardous chemicals. It will also provide a standard approach to convey information on material safety data sheets with extremely minimal cost to any business, small or large. OSHA will hold hearings in March and April 2010.
Third: OSHA is expediting efforts to update existing permissible exposure limits and make other provisions to protect workers from silica dust, which has been shown to cause lung disease, silicosis and lung cancer. We are working to publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in July 2010.
Fourth: OSHA is moving forward to protect workers from the hazards of combustible dust fire and explosion. The agency held stakeholder meetings on the future standard in December and we welcomed more comments at a meeting we held in Atlanta on February 17. In the coming weeks we'll be announcing more meetings in other cities.
Under this new Administration, we've stepped up enforcement of occupational safety and health standards. In the last fiscal year we filed four egregious cases; in the last quarter, we initiated seven.
We also issued the highest fine in OSHA history when we issued $87.4 million in proposed penalties to BP for failing to correct hazards that continue to threaten workers' health and safety.
Make no mistake: In addition to sending a message to these companies that we will not tolerate neglect of worker safety and health, we also want all employers to hear that OSHA will react swiftly and strongly when workers are put at risk.
Importance of Accurate Data Reporting
To support our enforcement efforts, OSHA is moving toward improving how workplace injuries and illnesses are reported. The Agency needs accurate data to effectively target its inspections and resources, and to measure the impact of OSHA's actions on workplace safety.
In October 2009 we initiated a major National Emphasis Program to ensure that workplace injuries and illnesses are accurately reported. This NEP will also focus on identifying programs that may discourage workers from reporting. We were very concerned about recent studies, Congressional hearings and a GAO report that not only documented serious underreporting, but also highlighted certain injury and illness incentive and disciplinary programs that can offer workers and employers significant disincentives to report accurately.
We will enforce our requirements and increase our efforts to ensure that workers and employers understand how important accurate data is to workplace safety and health.
As we move forward on this important issue, I hope you'll work with us to make the necessary improvements in reporting that can help us accurately track workplace injuries and illnesses.
OSHA is also looking carefully at worker safety and health issues related to green jobs. Green jobs promise to be kinder to our environment and transform our economy, but they're not necessarily safer for American workers. Many of these new jobs pose old occupational hazards.
For example, building and placing modern wind turbines still expose workers to the same hazards faced by traditional welders and tower erectors. On the other hand, some new, energy-efficient products expose workers to new, hazardous substances.
Employers who rush into the green economy without paying attention to worker safety and health will blunder into many preventable injuries and deaths. Dr. Michaels is making it his mission and OSHA's mission to ensure this doesn't happen.
Green jobs will not be good jobs unless they are safe jobs.
I want to talk for just a moment about "compliance assistance."
First, let me be clear. Compliance Assistance was not an invention of the last administration. OSHA has always put a premium on making sure that workers understand their rights and the hazards they face, and that employers understand how to come into compliance with OSHA regulations.
OSHA's renewed focus on standards and enforcement will not diminish our efforts to provide resources for worker training and training grants, or fact sheets, guidance documents and online learning tools. These are all good, and OSHA will continue to make these compliance assistance products available.
To put things in perspective, however, we see compliance assistance as a critical support - and not a replacement - for our enforcement and standards activities.
Still, I want you to know that OSHA is committed to finding ways to get more of these resources into the hands of more business owners and workers. We want to be sure that they have all the tools they need to effectively and affordably practice prevention and keep everyone safe and healthy on the job.
Last year, nearly 32,000 employers took advantage of one of our most popular compliance assistance products, the On-site Consultation Program, and 97 percent of these were small businesses that employed fewer than 250 workers.
Here in New Jersey last year, the consultation program provided more than 550 businesses with training and assistance to help keep workers safe and healthy on the job. As I've noted, there's more money in the budget next year to support this program and outreach to small businesses.
There's room for improvement. To do a better job of helping protect immigrant and other hard-to-reach workers, it's vital that we produce understandable and accessible materials. Many immigrant workers are limited in their understanding of English as their second language; in some cases, they have low literacy in their own language.
OSHA's regional staff here in New Jersey and in New York has made a great effort to reach out to Hispanic workers and workers who speak English as a second language, and I want to take a moment here to express my pride and thanks for their exemplary work.
At OSHA, we're continuing to find ways to make these workers aware of their rights and inform them about workplace safety and health issues to protect them from hazards. We welcome your ideas and assistance.
Toward this end, we are convening a National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety on April 14 and15 in Houston, Texas. OSHA is co-sponsoring the event with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), in partnership with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
The summit will bring together workers and representatives from across public and private sectors. Construction is the primary industry targeted by the conference, although we will also focus on other high-risk industries that employ large numbers of Latino workers.
The summit will provide a lot of useful information, including sessions on free services for small employers and effective educational materials and programs to inform Latino workers about workplace safety and health hazards. If any of you have best practices and success stories that can other businesses could use to reach these workers, I strongly urge you to attend and share your ideas.
I'm pleased to say that several groups will be representing New Jersey at the summit - particularly New Labor, which works closely with the Rutgers Labor Center.
The Secretary of Labor called for this summit and she will be on hand to open the meeting. OSHA's Home Page offers a link to information and registration.
Here in New Jersey, we have a lot of support. The safety and health compliance officers in OSHA's four Area Offices have been working on various health and safety projects with Rutgers University, numerous labor unions, the Federal Highway Administration, NIOSH, the New Jersey Department of Health, the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the New Jersey State Police, construction contractors, and others.
In particular, we've successfully collaborated to protect workers in highway work zones, dating back about 15 years. Our efforts, which undoubtedly have saved a lot of lives, continue to make an impact every day throughout the Garden State. I hope you'll think about this cooperative, private-public effort the next time you drive past a group of highway workers.
You can learn more about what OSHA is doing here in New Jersey during this conference's closing session today, presented by OSHA's Area Directors - so don't leave early!
I want to challenge the participants in this conference to be agents of change. You are already advocates for workplace safety and health. Now, I invite you to become more engaged in the rulemaking and enforcement process. You know how complex a safety and health standard can be, and OSHA needs your thoughts to help get these standards right.
Don't let the nay-sayers dominate the discussion. Many of you go above and beyond OSHA's standards and have instituted comprehensive safety and health management programs.
Many of your workplaces have implemented ergonomics programs and other strategies to keep your workers healthy and safe. If you have successful track records to prove that these strategies work, then share your expertise with us.
Look on OSHA's Web page to see the comments submitted for our "OSHA Listens" forum, and send in your own constructive suggestions about how we can do a better job.
Also on OSHA's Web pages you'll find new information on how OSHA functions, including budget information and statistical information on inspections and illness and injury reports. If there is other information that you want to see posted on our Web pages, let us know. We're listening.
Finally, we've been talking a lot today about OSHA and the role of government in general. No matter how valuable a new or expanded program may be, it's not easy to find the money to get it done. There are many important things competing for attention and resources in Washington. So, let me let you in a little secret. Nothing good ever happens for workers in Washington without the support of the Labor Movement and without the support of progressive employers who see the value of working together with their employees on health and safety issue as equal partners
There is only so much that Secretary Solis, or Dr. Michaels or I can accomplish to push the agenda that we share without your strong and aggressive support. We need you to speak up and work for what you need - and make sure you tell us how we're doing, good or bad.
Above all, stay involved. Even if you like what we're doing, never be satisfied.