Remarks Prepared for
David Michaels, PhD, MPH
OSHA Assistant Secretary of Labor
Workers' Memorial Day
April 28, 2015
Good afternoon. I appreciate the opportunity to be with you today. I'd like to thank Joe Ventura and John Morris from the Mid America Education Center for arranging today's event. President Tim Burga of the Ohio AFL-CIO and Harriot Applegate from the North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor: thank you for your support of this event. Thanks to Terry Joyce from the Cleveland Building Trades Council. And I'd like to thank all of the unions, companies, and associations who are here to support today's program. I know we are in for a meaningful program today.
On Workers' Memorial Day, we remember and honor all working men and women who lost their lives on the job. We remember the coworkers, friends and families that these fallen workers left behind, and on this day we recommit ourselves to this mission -- that at the end of every workday, every worker can go home safe and healthy.
On this day, we mourn not just for the lost lives and the damaged bodies, but also for the opportunity that is lost, the American dreams that are extinguished. We mourn not only for those we've lost, but for those left behind. And we recognize the burden that workplace injuries and illnesses place on workers, their families, and society as a whole.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act was enacted 44 years ago. This is the law that requires employers to provide workplaces free of serious hazards. But despite this law, there is an invisible epidemic going on. Not invisible because no one can see it but invisible because we as a country have chosen not to see it.
Every year, employers record more than three million serious injuries on their OSHA log. And we know that is an underestimate. Several studies have shown that many, and perhaps even most work-related injuries are not recorded by employers, so the actual number of workers injured each year is likely to be far higher. And another 4,500 workers are killed every year on the job.
This is a huge toll on the nation -- and I believe because it is workers, somehow it is acceptable. When was the last time a corporate executive was fired after a worker was killed on the job? It just doesn't happen. A worker dies and the police investigate and say -- it was an accident. By that, they mean it wasn't intentional. It wasn't murder. But it also suggests that it was something random and unpreventable. But these deaths, these injuries are predictable and preventable.
Work injuries and illnesses can have a devastating effect. They can force working families out of the middle class and into poverty, and crush a family's hope of entering the middle class. For many workers and their families, a workplace injury creates a trap which leaves them less able to save for the future or to make investments in skills and education that provide the opportunity for advancement. This directly hampers the ability of many working families to realize the American Dream.
Most of us think that when a worker gets hurt on the job, they are made whole by the workers' compensation system. The reality, however, is that the costs of workplace injury and illness are actually borne primarily by injured workers, their families, and taxpayer-supported safety-net programs. And now in many states we see a race to the bottom -- State legislatures have made it increasingly difficult for injured workers to receive the payments for the lost wages and medical expenses that they deserve. In fact, there are so many barriers to getting adequate benefits through state workers' compensation programs that a sizable portion of eligible workers never even apply.
In all, workers' compensation payments cover only about 21 percent -- a small fraction -- of lost wages and medical costs of work injuries and illnesses. Workers and their families now end up paying for nearly 63 percent of these costs out of pocket and taxpayers shoulder the remaining 16 percent. Tragically, many injured workers end up on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Medicare, which means taxpayers subsidize the dangerous employers who refuse to take the necessary steps to prevent their workers from being seriously injured. The number of SSDI beneficiaries and the amount of benefits paid by that program has grown dramatically in recent years. And, at least part of the growth in SSDI benefit payments can be attributed to work injuries and illnesses.
The state-based workers' compensation system is inadequate for the average worker and it performs even more poorly for low-wage workers, and especially the most vulnerable in the workforce. Many of these workers never apply for workers' compensation benefits; afraid they will lose their job, don't know their rights, or have a limited command of English.
And the challenges are even greater for those with work related illnesses. Few workers with occupational illnesses receive any benefits from the workers' compensation system. One study estimates that as many as 97 percent of these workers are uncompensated. This is partially because many cases of work-related chronic disease are never diagnosed as work-related. Often when a linkage is made, the diagnosis generally comes long after employment ends. Even when a proper diagnosis is made, a worker who is eligible for benefits under Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans' Benefits or private insurers is more likely to take that route. They do this because it is easier than obtaining benefits through state workers' compensation programs.
Important changes in the very structure of the employment relationships are also fueling this problem. The pervasive misclassification of wage employees as independent contractors and the widespread use of temporary workers increase the risk of work injuries and the number of workers facing financial hardships because of injuries. These changes also reduce the incentives for companies to assume responsibility for providing safe working conditions.
There is no doubt in my mind that all of these deaths, injuries and illnesses are preventable. And we know that addressing the serious problem of growing income inequality in this country means doing more than just raising the minimum wage. As important as that is; we also have to make our workplaces safer.
The law is very clear. Employers are required to provide safe workplaces, and many are doing just that. At the same time, it is vitally important that state-based workers' compensation programs take steps to eliminate roadblocks that prevent workers with compensable injuries or illnesses from receiving the full compensation to which they are entitled, because these roadblocks are also roadblocks to prevention. If employers whose workers were being injured had to pay the true costs of these injuries, these employers would have a more powerful incentive to prevent injuries from occurring. Instead, workers, their families and taxpayers are subsidizing these dangerous employers while they continue to injure more and more workers.
And it isn't fair to the high road employers, who make the investment in safety. Why should they be at a financial disadvantage competing with scofflaws, who cut corners on safety and never have to pay the real costs when their workers are injured.
Ultimately, the failure of many employers to prevent millions of work injuries and illnesses each year, and the failure of the broken workers' compensation system to ensure that workers do not bear the cost of their injuries and illnesses, are truly adding inequality to injury.
When we talk about three or perhaps five million serious injuries a year -- we recognize this is a major problem, and an unacceptably high number, but we sometimes don't grasp what it really means to the workers that are injured and their families. Dr. Irving Selikoff, the great asbestos disease expert, taught us that statistics are people with the tears wiped away.
Today, I'd like to read to you from a letter sent to President Obama, from the wife of one of these injured workers. Jessica's husband Robert -- I'm not going to use their last name -- was injured and the course of all their lives -- Robert's, Jessica's life and the lives of their three children -- were dramatically changed by a workplace injury. Robert worked for a Virginia employer that manufactured foam insulation. As often happened, one day the foam grinder was clogged and Robert's job was to climb up and into the grinder so they could restart production. When Robert was in the machine his manager turned on the power, pulling Robert into the machine, breaking one of his feet and severely mangling the other foot.
Here is some of the letter Jessica wrote to President Obama:
My husband has had four surgeries on that right foot and is undergoing physical therapy. He is wearing a cam boot to aide him in walking and is unable to walk without it.
My husband lives with constant chronic pain every day of the week and he tosses and turns throughout the night. As soon as he wakes up in the morning he has to put on this "boot" in order to do anything. This boot stays on his foot all day long because he is unable to walk without it on. Before being injured my husband played basketball or football every single day and he ran and played outside with our two toddler sons. He was a weight lifter and a fisherman and a hunter, these are all things he can no longer partake in due to his injuries from work. One of our sons took off towards the road, running full speed one day and I was 7 months pregnant and all my husband could do was yell at me and watch from his wheelchair as I scurried as fast as possible to grab my son before he went into the road.
His life the way he lived it was robbed from him and he will never be the same. We have three children, Evan who is 3½, Tristan who is 2½, and their new sister Halley who is 3 months old, my husband is unable to be the kind of father that so many people wish to be due to his injuries. He cannot be the "man" that so many men are not, because of his limitations. We are struggling financially so badly because of this "accident" and the negative affect it has had on his pay.
After his injury, Robert and his wife Jessica could no longer save money toward a new home. They were forced to move with their children into a shelter until they were able to find a new apartment -- and the only one they could afford was mold-ridden and infested with fleas.
Jessica closes her letter with a heartbreaking plea: "We wish to have answers to why there are so many laws in Virginia to protect the employers, when in cases like this, if the employer had done THEIR job enforcing OSHA regulations, accidents like the one my husband was involved in would never happen."
Jessica is right. Robert's injuries should have never happened. Like all workplace injuries and illnesses, his could have been prevented. That is what we commit ourselves to every day at OSHA -- helping employers prevent injuries and illnesses before they occur.
And that is why this January OSHA changed the way we do business. Before 2015, employers only had to report to OSHA work related fatalities or incidents where three or more workers were hospitalized. But we have seen that when we inspected after these tragic events, that these worksites -- the worksites reporting a fatality -- often had previous serious injuries and amputations that we had never known about. These were red flags that there were serious hazards in this workplace that needed to be prevented. On January 1st, OSHA changed the requirements for all employers we cover. Employers must now report -- in addition to all work related fatalities -- every work related hospitalization, amputation and loss of an eye.
In the first 3 months, we have already received more than 3,600 reports. We are triaging every call and initiating inspections in almost 40% -- but we are engaging with every employer. For those employers that we are not inspecting, we expect them to conduct an investigation and let us know what changes they will make to prevent further injuries.
Employers blame too many injuries on "careless workers" when we know the real cause of most incidents in which a worker is hurt is the presence of an unabated hazard. Too often we see employers blaming workers for being injured when that very employer has failed to provide protective equipment or guards or train their workers in safe work practices. We have to make sure employers know that injuries are not the worker's fault -- and that the employers are responsible for preventing injuries. That's what the law says.
Now, we have a powerful new tool to enable us to work with many employers we previously had no contact with. In many cases, we didn't even know they existed. By establishing a relationship with all employers who report these severe injuries, and by encouraging them to investigate the incidents in which the worker was hurt, I believe we will make a huge difference.
We know that many employers want to do the right thing and by working together, we -- government, employers, unions, worker centers, scientists and professionals -- have made a significant difference in worker health and safety. In 1970, before the OSH Act created OSHA, 38 workers were killed on the job every day in America. Now, with a workforce twice as large, that number is 12 a day. And we continue to make strides, because 12 lives lost each day are still 12 too many.
Although the OSHA law is more than 40 years old, the unwillingness of many employers to prevent millions of work injuries and illnesses and thousands of deaths are truly adding inequality to injury. So our work is far from done. Our job is to honor the memory of those workers who died on the job -- by fighting every day to make sure that employers act responsibly to make their workplaces safe and healthful.
It is our solemn mission to ensure that we do not return to those pre-OSHA days when people worked in fear. On this Workers' Memorial Day, we recommit ourselves to see that every worker returns home from work every day -- safe and healthy and alive. Because every one of these tragedies can be prevented.
But OSHA cannot be in every workplace to inspect and to uncover hazards. That is why the OSHA law gave workers the right to raise health and safety concerns. This makes sense because the people most able to identify hazards are often the workers who are threatened by these hazards.
When hazards are identified, workers must be able to notify their employer or -- if the hazard is not abated -- OSHA. If a worker is silenced, that worker is not safe, and that worker's co-workers may be endangered as well. For this reason, a vital component of our work is protecting workers from retaliation when they voice safety and health concerns.
To help ensure that workers have a voice in their workplaces and the protection they deserve I am unveiling today a new version of the "OSHA: It's the Law" poster that employers must prominently display in their workplace. This poster will reach workers and employers every day and it reinforces our message about prevention: employees have the right to request an OSHA inspection of their workplaces, receive information and training on job hazards, report a work-related injury or illness, and raise safety and health concerns with their employer or OSHA without being retaliated against. It also informs employers of their legal obligation to provide a safe workplace -- and that means eliminating the hazards that injure, or sicken, or sometime even kill their workers.
The poster was updated to include the new reporting obligations for employers. And it emphasizes a very important principal when it comes to prevention -- that every worker has a voice. Workers must be allowed to speak up about health and safety hazards and to advocate for the safety of themselves and their co-workers.
The bottom line is this: Workers have to be able to report hazards without fear of reprisal, and no one benefits if workers are silenced for sounding an alarm when they see a problem that could injure, sicken or kill someone. In fact, we all pay the price when workers are silenced.
We are all here today for the same reason -- to honor those who tragically lost their lives on the jobs, and to renew our efforts to prevent more needless and preventable deaths. There is no conceivable excuse for any employers to cut corners or blatantly disregard the safety and health of a worker to increase their bottom line. I promise you that we at OSHA are committed to giving all workers voice in the workplace, educating them about their rights, protecting them from retaliation, and enforcing our laws to prevent them from being hurt, sickened, or killed on the job. This is why I am here today; it's why you are here; and it's going to take all of us to make sure that our nation's workers don't have to sacrifice their safety, health, or lives for a paycheck. Thank you.