Remarks prepared for delivery
Dr. David Michaels
Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health
Workers' Memorial Day
April 28, 2014
Good afternoon. Welcome to those of you here with us in the audience and joining us on the web. I am David Michaels, and I want to thank all of you for being with us today.
Workers Memorial Day is a sad reminder to all of us at OSHA and the Department of Labor that no job is a good job unless it's a safe job. Today we remember those who have been killed, hurt, or made sick by their work.
I know that many of you who are with us today and watching from home have lost fathers, brothers, sisters, or daughters to preventable workplace injuries and illnesses. I want to tell you how deeply sorry I am for your loss. Please know that those you have lost did not die in vain. Today, in their honor, we renew our commitment to the safety and health of every worker.
We here at OSHA have a big job to do, and we know you support us. You are the reason we do our work. We carry you and your families in our hearts. Your stories stay with us and strengthen our resolve to fight harder to make sure the tragedies you have faced do not continue to happen.
We have a full and meaningful program for you today. We will hear from our Secretary Tom Perez and Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joe Main. Their presence here today is a testament to the Department's commitment to ensuring that everyone in this country can go to work every day – and also come home safe and healthy to their families.
Then I will be joined onstage by Sean Barrett, a terrazzo worker with silica-related asthma, and Peg Seminario, Director of Safety and Health at the AFL-CIO, for a panel on what can be done to better protect workers from harmful chemicals on the job. We must assure the health, as well as the safety, of this nation's workforce.
Before OSHA was created 43 years ago, an estimated 14,000 workers were killed on the job every year. Many others died from diseases caused by exposures to benzene, silica, asbestos or other hazardous substances. Today, workplaces are much safer and healthier. We've gone from 38 fatal injuries a day to 12. But there is still much work to be done.
Unfortunately, the workplace hazards that you often hear about are the ones you can see – trenches and grain silos, fall hazards and forklifts, electrical wiring and machines with moving parts. But many of the most serious hazards are the "silent killers" – the ones we can't see.
American workers use tens of thousands of chemicals every day. While many of these chemicals are known or suspected of being harmful, we have workplace exposure standards for only a small fraction. Workers pay the price for lack of regulation - workplace chemical exposures that have already occurred are responsible for tens of thousands of worker deaths every year.
Some of these silent killers, like silica dust and asbestos, work slowly over years of continuous exposure. Others, like lead and formaldehyde, can have serious effects after relatively short exposures. Whether slow or fast, these tragedies can and must be prevented.
OSHA is very concerned about chemical exposures in the workplace. The American people rightly expect OSHA to have standards that protect workers from preventable death and illness. But there are countless chemicals and chemical mixtures for which we have no permissible exposure limits (PELS). And with few exceptions, the current OSHA PELS have not been updated since they were adopted in 1971, while scientific data clearly indicate that many of these exposure limits do not protect all workers from harm.
This is one of the main reasons why we proposed a new standard to protect workers from exposure to crystalline silica dust. We have also been reaching out to employers with information on safer chemical exposure limits, and providing resources on safer chemical substitution.
But this is simply not enough. We must do more to ensure that workplaces are safe and healthful. In the very near future, we will be calling on employers, unions, workers, safety and health professionals and researchers to engage in a national conversation on how to better protect workers from serious chemical hazards on the job.
Now, to begin our program, it is my honor to introduce our Secretary of Labor Tom Perez. Secretary Perez has been a true champion for worker safety throughout his career, and he has made it clear that he will do everything in his power to help us succeed in our life-saving mission. Please join me in welcoming Secretary of Labor Tom Perez.
Our next speaker has committed his life to mine safety, aiding in rescue and investigation efforts from his early career and later becoming a leader of national and international health and safety programs. Please join me in welcoming Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joe Main.
Now, I am also very grateful today to be joined by two people who have important stories to tell about the dangers that workers are facing every day by being exposed to hazardous chemicals. I'm pleased to introduce you to our panelists Sean Barrett and Peg Seminario and invite them to join me up onstage for a thoughtful discussion about what we can do to protect the health as well as the safety of America's workers.
Sean Barrett is a terrazzo worker from Massachusetts. He is a young, proud, accomplished craftsman whose life has been seriously challenged by exposure to silica dust. Silica is one of the many hazards that threaten the health of workers all across America. We are grateful that he has joined us here today to share his story. Please welcome.... Sean Barrett.
Most of you know our next panelist – she is the Director of Safety and Health at the AFL-CIO where she's worked for more than three decades on safety and health regulations and regulatory policy issues. She is a true friend of OSHA's and a tireless advocate for better protection of all workers across this nation. She has been involved in almost all of OSHA's major initiatives–from OSHA's ground breaking right-to-know regulation beginning in the 1970s to the silica regulation many of you are working on right now. Please welcome a true champion for America's workers, Peg Seminario.
This is not the time to turn back the clock and return to the days before OSHA. Making a living shouldn't have to cost you your life. Workplace fatalities, injuries, and illnesses are preventable. Safe jobs happen because employers make the choice to fulfill their responsibilities and protect their workers.
Today on Workers Memorial Day and every day of the year, we recall the words of Mother Jones, the great labor organizer and community leader, who reminded us to "pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living."