• Information Date
  • Presented To
    ISN Global Conference
  • Speaker(s)
    Richard Mendelson

Remarks As Prepared For Delivery By
Richard Mendelson
Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor
for Occupational Safety and Health

ISN Global conference
Dallas, Texas
May 1, 2018

Thank you for the invitation to speak here today. I enjoyed last night’s reception at the Perot Museum.  It was great to hear from the participants about real-life safety & health challenges, as well as best practices. I’m happy to represent OSHA and discuss some of our current key issues. Along with my regular position as Regional Administrator for OSHA’s Region 3, located in Philadelphia and covering the Mid-Atlantic States, the opportunity to serve in my current detail as Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary has been both a professional challenge and an honor. 

Loren Sweatt, the Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary for OSHA, could not be here today, but sends her regards. 

COMMON GOAL

The work of the agency has been moving forward throughout the past year, and our mission – as always – has been focused on worker safety & health. I know this is a shared goal with everyone here today.  Our common goal is that every worker goes home safe and healthy at the end of every day. We are working hard to maintain a balance of enforcement and compliance assistance. 

ENFORCEMENT

Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta has made protecting America’s employees a top priority. Under his leadership, the Department is committed to fully AND fairly enforcing the laws under its jurisdiction. It should be clear that we are a regulatory agency, and we are not backing away from our enforcement program. 

I’m proud to work for OSHA. And, like me, OSHA staff members are tremendously dedicated to our mission. Our Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey scores reflect this commitment. Indeed, it’s a mission that’s easy to embrace. The goal of assuring every working man and woman safe and healthful working conditions is as valid today as it was in 1970 when OSHA began. While the rate of workplace fatalities has decreased substantially over four decades, the rate of decrease has slowed. To move to the next level, we need to move beyond compliance and truly address “safety culture.” As the economy shifts from traditional manufacturing and industrial settings to the energy, service, healthcare, and information sectors, different workplace hazards emerge. OSHA must, and does, continue to adapt to meet these challenges. 

WHISTLEBLOWER

Worker protection extends beyond compliance with safety and health regulations, to include a worker’s right to raise safety and health concerns without fear of retaliation. In fact, companies with effective safety and health programs actually find it helpful to encourage employees to report their concerns. Think about it: Would you rather hear about a potential problem from your employee, or from a government inspector? Or, worse, not hear about it at all, and then suffer a mishap, an injury, or even a fatality?

INSPECTIONS

OSHA inspections may be either programmed (such as construction targeting lists, or special emphasis programs), or unprogrammed (such as complaints, referrals, or severe injury reports). I’m sure by now you are familiar with the reporting requirements for severe injuries, such as amputations and hospitalizations, in addition to workplace fatalities. OSHA receives about 11,000 severe injury reports each year. We inspect about 1/3 of these. The majority are handled by a Rapid Response Investigation, where we ask the employer to investigate and get back to us with the root causes, and correct them. I note that “employee misconduct” is NOT a root cause. An employee not following a rule might certainly be a cause, but you can’t end your investigation there. What part of your safety and health program failed to catch this, tolerated the deviation, or perhaps even condoned it? 

EMPHASIS PROGRAMS

Speaking of emphasis programs, OSHA maintains a wide variety of national, regional, and local emphasis programs. Each of these has both an enforcement and compliance assistance component. There is always an outreach period before OSHA implements any new emphasis program.

ENFORCEMENT

Regardless of what triggers an inspection, you should expect a professional, and thorough, interaction with OSHA. Our Compliance Officers are trained safety and health specialists, whose job it is to identify hazards, and document violations. This includes looking for root causes and systemic issues, not merely completing a checklist. Compliance Officers should also provide you with abatement assistance for any apparent violations. We encourage rapid abatement of hazards – interim measures can include removing an employee from danger until a permanent control can be put in place. 

HIERARCHY OF CONTROLS

Following the hierarchy of controls provides the best method for fixing workplace hazards; in general, eliminating the hazard, substituting a lower risk alternative, or engineering out the hazard are preferable to administrative controls, work practices, or personal protective equipment. PPE definitely has its place, but it also has limitations.

BALANCED APPROACH

I recognize that people attending here today already understand that safety is important. But in the larger universe, there is a continuum of worker safety and health experience – from non-compliance all the way to program excellence. At one end of the spectrum are those employers who do not comply with the law. And those employers themselves are arrayed – from those who get routine citations, to those who get repeat and willful violations, to significant enforcement actions, to Severe Violators, and even a small subset of criminal referrals. 

COMPLIANCE ASSISTANCE

At the other end, there are many employers who do comply with the law. Many responsible employers have effective safety & health programs to protect their workers. 

They may take advantage of OSHA’s free and confidential Consultation Program – more on that later – or hire their own consultants. 

They may participate in an Alliance or Partnership with OSHA, directly or through an industry association. Those with an exemplary safety and health program may participate in OSHA’s SHARP program or Voluntary Protection Programs. In all these efforts, successful programs include a component of worker involvement. After all, employees have a huge stake in having a safe workplace.

In-between those ends are the bulk of employers whose focus is on their business, not necessarily on OSHA. But they still need to protect their employees from safety & health hazards. OSHA’s compliance assistance and outreach efforts are designed to help such employers. 

This is the balance I referred to earlier. Enforcement and compliance assistance are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are complimentary. The overriding principle is worker protection. All our efforts – rulemaking, enforcement, compliance assistance, cooperative programs, and so on – are not an end unto themselves; they are tools to accomplish our mission, and our mission is worker safety and health. 

EMERGENCY RESPONSE

Late last summer and into the fall, the United States was faced with the successive landfall of three significant Atlantic hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, and Maria) which impacted Texas, the Gulf Coast, Florida, and the Caribbean. Three different OSHA Regions were impacted. While many of our own employees were personally affected, our worker safety and health mission still needed to be performed. Numerous workers responded to the hurricanes in emergency response and recovery roles – including life safety and rescue, power and utility restoration, and repairing infrastructure and housing stock from flooding and wind damage. These workers faced a wide variety of hazards. OSHA coordinated with our federal, state, and local partners. Working under the auspices of the National Response Framework’s Worker Safety and Health Support Annex, OSHA conducted over 1,800 interventions and 1,200 outreach activities. These reached over 20,000 workers, including removing over 5,200 workers from hazards.  Alliance members provided PPE for distribution in the Caribbean. And our state plan partners, such as in Puerto Rico, served as a force multiplier. Again, a balanced approach helped to address worker safety and health, even in the face of unprecedented natural disasters. 

TRENCHING

The Department of Labor’s 2018 Strategic Plan contains a new Agency Priority Goal for OSHA: To increase the number of trenching and excavation hazards abated by 10% by 9/30/2019 (compared to the 2017 baseline), this increase is to be achieved via both enforcement and compliance assistance. This goal is relevant because we have seen an unfortunate increase in the number of preventable trench fatalities – and virtually ALL trench fatalities are preventable. 

Compliance with OSHA’s existing (almost 30-year-old) standard would prevent most of these fatalities. Earth science, soil mechanics, and gravity have not changed much in the last 3 decades. So, why are workers still getting killed? Some employers may not properly perceive or assess the risk – the chance that an unprotected trench will collapse and bury, hurt, or kill someone. We’re told that “it’s good dirt,” “it’s not that deep,” “we’ll be in and out,” “it will take longer to place protection than do the job,” or some other excuse or rationalization. At the same time, some employers also take their chances with not getting caught. They don’t expect a collapse any more than they expect an inspector to show up. So, they risk both physical and legal harm.

This troubling increase in trench fatalities is leading OSHA to join the National Utility Contractor Association and the North American Excavation Shoring Association in a Trench Stand-Down June 18-23.

FALLS

OSHA will host its 5th annual Fall Stand-Down next week, May 7-11. Participants will again get a certificate, which will now be tiered to reflect participation in prior years’ events. Falls continue to kill an unnecessary number of workers: 370 of the 991 construction fatalities in 2016. These falls – and deaths – are preventable. 

HEAT

OSHA will launch its heat stress campaign on May 25 – the Friday before Memorial Day is “Don’t Fry Day.” Whether you’re exposed to the sun or any source of heat, the solution is simple: Water – Rest – Shade.

SAFE + SOUND

For the second year in a row, OSHA and multiple partners will again sponsor the Safe + Sound Campaign, during the week of August 13-19. This is a series of events looking to highlight the benefits, and raise the profile of effective safety & health programs. Think of Safe + Sound as an umbrella for other ongoing safety and health campaigns throughout the year. 

Safe + Sound and our other campaigns are one way we get the word out about worker safety and health. I’m also pleased to report that OSHA’s bi-weekly electronic newsletter “QuickTakes” now has more than 215,000 subscribers. We’re also increasing the use of public service announcements and social media; we have almost 10,000 Twitter followers. 

COOPERATIVE PROGRAMS

OSHA’s Cooperative Programs – alliances, partnerships, SHARP, and VPP – are excellent ways for employers, employees, and associations to work together with OSHA on meaningful worker safety and health initiatives. For example, both SHARP and VPP provide exemptions from planned inspections. SHARP is administered by OSHA’s Consultation Projects, which are themselves a terrific tool for employers. They provide free and confidential workplace inspections and work with the employer to find and fix hazards, get into compliance, and improve their safety and health programs. In fact, OSHA’s Consultation Projects are meeting this week in San Antonio, and I’ll be heading there next!

Companies participating in the Voluntary Protection Program have exceptional safety and health programs. OSHA is looking to grow VPP in a sustainable fashion, while still maintaining quality. The goal is to grow the program responsibly, and not dilute its quality. Beyond adding resources, we are also looking at streamlining processes. One thing you can do, if you are a VPP company, is have your employees trained as Special Government Employees (SGEs), and then support their participation in VPP activities. OSHA uses SGEs to supplement its own Compliance Assistance Specialists on VPP on-site evaluations and related tasks. This is a true way to “pay it forward” and increase the program’s sustainability. The Region 6 chapter of the Voluntary Protection Program Participants Association is meeting this week in Fort Worth – a busy week for safety conferences in Texas! 

BALANCED APPROACH

The vast majority of employers strive to keep their workplaces safe, and comply with applicable laws. Acknowledging this, the Department is working to provide compliance assistance, to give employers and employees the knowledge and tools they need to comply with their obligations and stay safe. Compliance with the law is, however, mandatory. Employers that do not comply with the law will continue to see full enforcement. 

SAFETY & HEALTH PROGRAMS

One way to avoid enforcement is to go beyond compliance, by adopting and implementing a safety and health program. An effective safety and health program addresses management commitment and employee involvement, worksite analysis, hazard identification and control, and employee training. Don’t look at a safety and health program just as a way to meet the standard; think of it as a way to manage risk. 

CONTRACTORS

Recently, OSHA updated its 1989 safety and health program guidance. This included looking at the current workplace realities – such as multi-employer worksites, and temporary and contingent workers.  Another important factor, and one likely of interest here, is the relationship between host and contractor employers. High-risk and non-routine tasks are often contracted to specialty trade contractors. At the same time, it is often a contractor who ends up being involved in an incident, injury, or fatality. Contractor vetting, pre-qualification, benchmarking, and turning statistics into predictive analytics are powerful tools. Supervision and control are also important factors to address. Training and qualification must be meaningful and realistic, not just on paper. Job hazard analyses, pre-job briefings, and effective communications often make the difference between a successful outcome and a mishap.  Deviations from the pre-plan or SOP, or finding that the actual conditions do not match the planning assumptions, should be red flags. 

CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT

Your business evolves and changes, and so must your plans. Safety & health programs are not static.  They need to be periodically reviewed and updated. Successful companies with excellent programs, such as VPP participants, strive for continuous improvement.  In fact, OSHA VPP audits look for areas of excellence and best practices during re-approval visits. 

COMMON GOAL

OSHA is your partner in worker safety and health. Worker protection is an ongoing journey, not a destination. Some of you here today may disagree with OSHA on any number of issues, but I truly doubt that anyone here disagrees with the fundamental concept of protecting workers on the job. 

BALANCED APPROACH

As we move forward with our balanced approach of enforcement and compliance assistance, let us know how we’re doing. Thank you for being valued colleagues in our common goal that every worker goes home healthy and safe.