Dr. David Michaels
Assistant Secretary of Labor
for Occupational Safety and Health
2012 Workers Memorial Day Ceremony
National Labor College
Silver Spring, MD
Friday, April 27, 2012
I'm honored to be here and to join your voices in speaking on behalf of the dignity and rights of America's workers
I want to thank President Peinovich and her staff at the National Labor College for inviting me to be part of your Workers Memorial Day event. Secretary Solis asked me to convey her regards to you today.
On this day, above all days, we remember that no job is a good job unless it's a safe job -- and safe jobs are no accident; safe jobs happen because employers make a conscious decision, each and every day of the year, to make protecting workers a priority in the workplace.
Workers Memorial Day is a time to reflect, a time to honor those we have lost, a time to renew our commitment to the fight to protect workers from illness, injury and death.
Why We Are Here
At a Workers Memorial day event we held earlier today the Department of Labor, I was reflecting on a meeting we had last week with some of the family members who have lost loved ones on the job.
There was a sister who lost her brother in a terrible aluminum dust explosion. There was a niece whose uncle died after falling 80 feet down a cement elevator shaft. There was a father who lost his 19-year-old son when the boy was electrocuted on a construction job -- only three months after his high school graduation.
These people traveled from all over the country -- from as far away as San Diego -- to meet with members of Congress and Administration officials to talk about their losses and theirs efforts to prevent similar tragedies from happening to others. As they sat in a room full of strangers, they bravely told their stories through tears, anger and determination. Their stories are why we are here.
Every day I see the faces of fallen workers -- their pictures cover the walls of OSHA's conference room. These workers remind us who we're working for -- today and every day of the year. More than 4,600 workers died on the job last year. Today we acknowledge their loss, grieve with their families and friends, and resolve to honor their memory by pursuing our shared mission to ensure the safety and health of America's workforce.
OSHA at 41
Workers Memorial Day is also OSHA's birthday. On this day 41 years ago OSHA began fulfilling a mission set down by Congress to assure the basic proposition that no worker should have to choose between their life and their job.
Passed with bipartisan support, the creation of OSHA was a historic moment of cooperative national reform. Forty years of common-sense standards and strong enforcement, training, outreach and compliance assistance have saved thousands of lives and prevented countless injuries. Just look at the difference: In 1970, 38 workers were killed on the job every day in America; now it's 12 a day. This is a great improvement, but it's still 12 too many.
Yesterday, Secretary Solis led an Action Summit in Los Angeles as part of the week's many events honoring Workers Memorial Day. During the Summit, she announced our new campaign to prevent deadly falls in the construction industry. The awareness campaign will provide employers and workers with life-saving information and educational materials about working safely from ladders, scaffolds and roofs. During her remarks she rightly observed that the best way to honor Workers Memorial Day is to make sure that another family does not have to suffer the pain of losing a loved one because of preventable workplace injuries.
At OSHA, we are working harder than ever to reach and educate workers. Secretary Solis understands more than anybody the need to reach more vulnerable workers -- including those who don't have English as a first language. With her support, we have significantly increased outreach to these workers who often do the worst, most dangerous jobs in our country. We owe it to them to provide all the help we can to protect their rights.
Fall Prevention Campaign: "Safety Pays – Falls Cost"
At her Los Angeles Action Summit, Secretary Solis announced OSHA's latest effort to reach these vulnerable workers: our "Safety Pays – Falls Cost" Fall Prevention Campaign.
Falls are the leading cause of construction fatalities -- they account for more than a third of all deaths in the construction industry. In 2010, more than 10,000 construction workers were injured as a result of falling while working from heights, and more than 250 were killed.
This is why we have joined with labor and management groups and with NIOSH, to launch an outreach and education campaign to prevent fatal falls in construction. This awareness campaign is designed to bring a message to America's employers and workers: Falls can be prevented.
The campaign will focus on falls from roofs, ladders and scaffolds, which accounted for nearly three quarters of all fall fatalities in construction in 2010.
We're sticking to simple language, clear illustrations, and easy-to-follow instructions. With help from local and national stakeholders we'll take that message directly to those who need it most.
Though falls are the leading cause of death in construction, these deaths are preventable when employers follow three simple steps: Plan, Provide and Train... When working at heights, everyone needs to plan ahead to get the job done safely, provide the right equipment, and train everyone to use the equipment safely.
Our Fall Prevention campaign is based on our highly successful Heat Illness Prevention campaign, and we hope it will be equally successful.
Last summer we took what we learned from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and applied it around the country, educating employers and workers on the dangers of exposure to extreme heat.
Every summer hundreds of outdoor workers suffer serious heat-related illnesses, and dozens die from heat exposure. Nationwide last summer, OSHA conducted nearly 700 outreach activities and distributed more than 180,000 heat hazard materials in English and Spanish. We partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue heat alerts to workers and employers across the country. By our count, this campaign reached more than 2 million workers with the simple, life-saving message: "Water. Rest. Shade." This summer, we're hoping to reach even more.
Protecting Healthcare Workers
It might surprise you to hear that one in every five workers injured in the private sector is a healthcare worker. We at OSHA think it's terribly unfair that healthcare workers should suffer while caring for others.
In 2010, according to the department's Bureau of Labor Statistics, nursing and residential care facilities experienced one of the highest rates of lost workdays due to injuries and illnesses of all major American industries.
Health care workers face many serious safety and health hazards, including bloodborne pathogens, workplace violence, exposure to chemicals, drugs, and radioactive materials, and injuries from lifting and repetitive tasks. Nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants had the highest rates of musculoskeletal disorders of all occupations in 2010, and the rates are actually increasing!
These are people who dedicate their lives to caring for our loved ones when they are not well. It is not acceptable that they continue to get hurt at such high rates. This is why OSHA recently announced a new National Emphasis Program to focus outreach efforts and inspections on hazards in nursing homes and residential care facilities over the next three years.
Compassion for Victims' Families
When I came aboard at OSHA almost three years ago, our OSHA leadership met with the families of many workers who had been killed on the job, and we promised them that OSHA would work more closely with them as we sought justice for their loved ones. Last week we were pleased to tell family members that we are now delivering on my promise:
This month we issued a new "Family Directive" that lays out for OSHA representatives how to communicate with family members about our investigation procedures following a workplace fatality. This new guidance ensures that OSHA representatives will speak to the victim's family early in the investigation process, establish a point of contact, and maintain a working relationship with the family.
This directive also ensures that OSHA receives necessary information from families to assist in the investigation, and keeps families informed throughout the investigation and settlement processes.
This action reflects our commitment to working with families to explain the circumstances surrounding the deaths of their loved ones.
In FY 2011 OSHA and its state partners conducted more than 90,000 inspections of workplaces covering millions of workers -- but OSHA can't be everywhere. We rely on you for help. As the eyes and ears of OSHA, you help us protect your co-workers by letting OSHA know when employers may not be living up to their responsibilities.
We take the role of whistleblowers seriously. When we received an anonymous complaint about safety conditions at one of Brocon Petroleum's work sites in New Jersey, the company's executives had a pretty good idea who made the call. So, they fired the worker on the spot.
That's a clear violation of workers' rights under the OSH Act, so we charged the employer with illegal whistleblower retaliation -- along with a list of safety violations found during the inspection. OSHA ordered the company to remove all mention of the event from the fired worker's record, and pay the worker $7,500 in back wages. Despite a court order, the company refused to pay what it owed to the terminated employee.
Our response? Along with U.S. marshals, we seized the company president's black Corvette. At auction, that shiny car brought enough funds to pay the whistleblower and recoup the agency's costs.
In January, we ordered AirTran Airways to reinstate a pilot who was fired after reporting mechanical concerns. Can you imagine? This pilot was worried not only for his safety and the safety of his co-workers, but also for the flying public, where a mechanical problem could put many lives in peril. We're all glad this worker spoke up, and we sent this employer a very strong message: We ordered the company to pay that pilot more than $1 million in back wages, interest and damages.
We are serious about enforcing workplace safety and health standards, whistleblower protections, and workers' rights -- including the right to complain to OSHA, to seek an OSHA inspection, to participate in an OSHA inspection, and to testify in any proceeding related to an OSHA inspection. That's the law.
Recordkeeping and Incentive Programs
Investigating injuries, and learning from them, is one of the most important ways to prevent future injuries from occurring. Nothing can be learned from an injury that isn't reported.
Some companies have incentive programs that work both sides by discouraging workers from reporting injuries, while offering management huge bonuses for keeping their injury reports low. We've seen companies whose policies seem to work like this: If a worker is injured, management finds a safety rule to hold up and say the worker has broken that rule -- "not paying attention," or "not working safely." This pretext is then used to fire the worker and intimidate other workers from reporting injuries or hazards.
Studies by the Government Accountability Office and others have noted that, in too many cases in this country, workplace safety incentive programs are doing more harm than good by creating incentives to conceal worker injuries.
We cannot allow incentive programs that offer pizza parties or a chance at a new car if they meet a goal of not reporting injuries over a period of time. OSHA will take a very hard look at the situation when we hear about a worker being retaliated against after reporting an injury -- and here's what you can do to help: If you know of cases where workers are being retaliated against, or employers are not recording injuries -- call OSHA, we can help.
Help from Workers, Unions and Families
Over the past four decades, OSHA has made a difference for the better, but we still have far to go, and we need your help. We need your help telling the truth: OSHA doesn't kill jobs; OSHA stops jobs from killing workers!
We must not forget the 4,690 workers killed last year on the job, nor their grieving families and co-workers.
Workers like Tom Osier, only 18 years old, who was suffocated and killed last May on a Michigan farm when he was engulfed by tons of corn inside a silo.
Workers like 70-year-old Volodymyr Hnyda, a residential construction worker in Illinois who died after falling from a scaffold because his employer failed to provide adequate fall protection.
Or workers like Armando and Eladio Ramirez, aged 16 and 22, the young brothers who died due to inhalation of hydrogen sulfide gas while cleaning an underground storm drain system at the recycling facility in California.
As you well know, we are in the heart of the political season. Here's what you can do: Remember these fallen workers. Ask every candidate for a commitment to safe jobs. Get every one of them on the record supporting worker protections and our effort for a national injury and illness prevention program.
As we move forward, let's recall Mother Jones, who instructed us to "Mourn for the dead, and fight like hell for the living." Let her words remind us that today, in spite of our differences, we all want the same thing: Healthier Workers, Safer Workplaces, and a Stronger America.