Videoconference Remarks by Dr. David Michaels
Assistant Secretary of Labor
for Occupational Safety and Health
American Bar Association
Occupational Safety and Health Law Committee
New Orleans, LA
Wednesday, March 15, 2011
OSHA at 40
Good morning. I'd like to be with you in New Orleans right now, talking over breakfast and having a lively in-person discussion. Fortunately this technology is the next best thing to being there in person.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of OSHA opening its doors. It's a good time to look back at what this agency has accomplished.
For 40 years OSHA and its state partners have used common-sense standards and strong enforcement to save thousands of lives and prevent countless injuries.
There's no question that our workplaces are far safer today than before OSHA came on the scene. Back in 1970, about 38 workers every day were killed on the job all across the U.S. Today, the daily average is down to 12. That's progress!
Today, people pay more attention to worker protection than they did before enactment of the OSH Act. Because of this landmark law, our workplaces and our nation are more efficient, more productive, and more humane.
There's a lot of data to back up this statement. I won't bore you with a stack of reports, but let me give you just three examples:
Since OSHA began –
- After the cotton dust standard passed, brown lung disease in textile workers dropped from 12 percent to 1 percent.
- Since the grain handling standard was issued, grain explosions fell 42 percent, worker injuries fell 60 percent, and worker deaths fell 70 percent.
- In the last decade, our needlestick and bloodborne pathogen standards have helped shield healthcare workers from getting sick or dying from hepatitis B.
OSHA's life-saving impact is in the news every day. Back in January in Secaucus, New Jersey, we heard about a 25-year-old worker who was doing repairs way up in the air on the outside a high-rise building. He fell and he would have died – but he was saved from hitting the ground because he was wearing a safety harness. He went home to his family, alive, instead of in a body bag because he used his safety equipment.
Regulations and the Economy
OSHA isn't the enemy of business. We all want to see our workplaces succeed. What good is an injured, sick or dead worker to an employer?
So let's be clear: OSHA regulations are not killing jobs; they stop jobs from killing workers.
If there's anything employers cherish, it's a sense of fairness – they want the chance to compete fairly with other businesses here and around the world.
It's not fair to the majority of responsible employers when other people attempt to weaken or ignore OSHA's common-sense regulations. Our regulations create a level playing field to make sure everyone follows the rules.
And we can't say that workplaces are overregulated – not just because workers continue to get sick, injured and killed on the job from clearly preventable hazards; but also because in the last 10 years OSHA has issued just 2 new standards.
You all know that when we issue a new regulation, it's after years of work – data collection and analysis, cost-benefit studies, feasibility studies, public comment periods, public hearings. With modern technology, we've added live Web chats. We do all this to listen to stakeholders.
When we do finally issue a standard, there's no question that it has passed the "common-sense test" a dozen times over.
By ensuring the health and safety of our nation's workers, OSHA helps our economy –
- First, because safe and healthy workers contribute to our nation's productivity.
- Second: OSHA regulations don't just prevent worker injuries and illnesses; they also drive businesses to modernize and innovate.
In fact, there's ample evidence that a lack of regulations can cost lives that can lead to worksite closings and the loss of jobs.
Compared with the scope of OSHA's mission, this is a small agency. With our state partners we have less than 2,500 inspectors responsible for the health and safety of 130 million workers. It's physically impossible for OSHA inspectors to be in every workplace every day of the year all across our nation.
Still, because enforcement remains an effective deterrent, we are leveraging our limited resources to maintain strong enforcement. "Strategic targeting" means we are focusing our attention on those employers and industries where workers are in the most danger of getting hurt, sick or killed.
In FY 2010, OSHA issued more egregious and significant cases than at any time in the last decade.
A year ago we announced the Severe Violator Enforcement Program. For recalcitrant employers who aren't protecting their workers, this targeted program brings new, enhanced features: It increases OSHA inspections, adds mandatory follow-up inspections, and brings inspections to other worksites managed by the same employer.
This enforcement program is delivering as planned: We're uncovering more systemic problems – sometimes in multiple worksites owned by the same employer, and sometimes across entire industries. By rooting out these systemic problems, we can eventually make a huge difference in the lives of tens of thousands of workers.
The fact is, regulations and enforcement are helping whole industries to be safer and more productive.
We've also updated our penalty policy – especially how and when to allow reductions. But let me assure you: We will continue our policy of reducing penalties for small employers and those acting in good faith.
Now that I've talked about common-sense standards and targeted enforcement, you're probably asking: "What about compliance assistance?"
We realize that the vast majority of employers want to do the right thing and protect their workers from harm on the job – and OSHA is reaching out to businesses.
Last year OSHA's Web site received 182 million visits, and we helped more than 200,000 people by phone and e-mail.
Our On-site Consultation Program specialists made more than 30,000 visits to small business owners last year. These free consultations helped employers reduce hazards, improve their safety programs, and save money.
Last year we also approved or renewed almost 200 sites participating in our Voluntary Protection Programs. We took time to recognize employers and workers who exceeded OSHA standards and achieved outstanding safety and health on the job. Then we ask those employers to help others do the same.
Vulnerable, Hard-to-Reach Workers
OSHA is also focusing compliance assistance on the most vulnerable workers in America. These workers, often in high-risk industries, are hard to reach because they are challenged by language barriers, literacy and other disadvantages.
It's a cruel axiom that the workers in the most dangerous jobs are often the ones who receive the least amount of what they need most – things like training and personal protective equipment that can make their jobs safer. Unfortunately, these workers are also the least likely to speak up for their rights because they don't know they have rights under the law.
A recent study of low-wage earners in the Chicago area found some very sad statistics:
- 1 in 5 workers had suffered an injury or illness on the job,
- almost 1 in 3 never received proper safety training,
- and more than half of the workers surveyed had never even heard of OSHA.
We're working to change this. It isn't news that workers who know their rights and receive proper training and protective equipment are an asset to their employers.
OSHA has made a special effort in the last year to remind employers that they must not discriminate against workers who ask for protective equipment or other safety devices, or for raising safety concerns.
When employers present information about workers' rights, or safety and health training materials, they are required to provide this information in a language that their workers can understand – and OSHA inspectors are checking for this during site visits.
You've heard the Secretary of Labor talk about her vision of "Good Jobs for Everyone." OSHA's regulatory program supports this vision ...
Last year we issued a historic new rule addressing cranes and derricks in construction. This standard was designed, with industry input and support, to protect about 4.8 million workers.
We also increased protection for workers in residential construction. After a lot of discussions with stakeholders, we rescinded a 1995 directive that allowed employers to bypass fall protection requirements.
This is progress, but we need to take a broader view. The 4,340 worker deaths and 3.3 million work-related injuries and illnesses we see every year erode our nation's productivity.
Liberty Mutual put out a report last year that calculated the direct cost of the most disabling workplace illnesses: Workers' compensation costs our nation's employers one billion dollars a week – money that would be better invested in job creation and innovation.
This is why OSHA and many organizations believe that our workers will be better protected with a more proactive, systemic approach. An injury and illness prevention program offers a framework to help employers find and fix hazards in their workplaces – before their workers get hurt.
Injury and illness prevention programs are not new. Many employers use them, and 15 states actually require employers to use them.
We've been studying the real-world experiences of employers who report dramatic reductions in injuries and illnesses after implementing these programs.
This evidence prompted OSHA in 2010 to announce that we are working on a new regulatory effort. We want to require most employers to implement an effective injury and illness prevention program in their workplaces.
This represents a fundamental change in how employers think about workplace safety and health, but it will save lives.
To explore this idea, OSHA held five stakeholder meetings around the country. We listened and we talked. Participants included large and small employers, professional and trade associations, labor representatives and individual workers.
Since then, we have been analyzing the stakeholder input, we've been conducting an economic and feasibility analysis, and we're preparing for a small business panel review beginning in June.
Before I take your questions, let me leave you with a final thought.
Recently I was watching video interviews of my predecessors reminiscing about OSHA's challenges and accomplishments.
One administrator, Morton Corn, led OSHA during the Ford Administration. He said something during his interview that is really striking. I wrote it down and I want to read it to you:
OSHA "was the instrument of a revolutionary law. I always looked upon it as insuring Americans of a new right in the Bill of Rights – the right to a safe and healthful workplace."
This is what OSHA has continued to do for 40 years as we help both workers and employers. Together, we want the same thing: Healthier Workers, Safer Workplaces, and a Stronger America.