• Information Date
  • Speaker(s)
    Edwin G. Foulke Jr.
  • Status
Archive Notice - OSHA Archive

NOTICE: This is an OSHA Archive Document, and may no longer represent OSHA Policy. It is presented here as historical content, for research and review purposes only.


As Prepared for Delivery
Edwin G. Foulke Jr.
Assistant Secretary of Labor
Occupational Safety and Health Administration

GTMA 106th Annual Meeting
(Association of Georgia's Textile, Carpet
and Consumer Products Manufacturers)

Ponte Vedra Inn & Club
Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
8:30 a.m. Monday, May 8, 2006

Thank-you, Tom [Watters], for that kind and overly generous introduction.

I want to congratulate the organizers of this conference:

First, for your longevity. If you can manage to get together every year for 106 years and still be friends, you have to be doing something right -- and thank-you for welcoming me into your friendly and enduring circle.

Second, I want to congratulate you for the outstanding agenda planned for this conference. OSHA's mission is saving lives and improving workplace conditions, so I like the sound of your conference's theme this year, "Improving Lives Worldwide." And third, I was very impressed to read about how much Tom and his family have been involved in their community.

I think it's terrific that they received from Rome, Georgia, the 2005 "Award of Honor from the Heart of the Community."

As you will hear me explain in a few minutes, I passionately believe that workplace safety affects not only employees and employers but also everyone in their community which is why I am delighted to speak to you today about OSHA's mission and how we can help every one of your businesses have a positive and powerful impact on your employees and your communities.

Adults do the darnedest things!
I wonder if I can see a show of hands here -- How many people remember a fellow on TV back in the 1960s called Art Linkletter? He had a program called "Kids Say the Darnedest Things."

When it comes to workplace safety and health, it may be just as true that "ADULTS DO the darnedest things," as you'll see from some pictures that I have brought with me.

Taking the fifth place award for dangerous workplace practices is this fellow. It's hard to believe anyone would take a chance at injuring themselves at work by standing on one foot on an unstable ladder that is leaning against power lines - but there you are!

In fourth place is this overconfident character, sitting underneath a propped-up truck. He is just waiting for trouble to come crashing down on him.

Winning third place for unsafe work practices is this group: Here we have one forklift lifting another forklift, which in turn is carrying two guys. No safety harnesses, no hard hats, no concerns! And for best non-support, we should give a prize to the half-dozen people who are standing around, waiting to see what happens -- instead of looking out for each other!

In second place is a driver who should have his license taken away for not looking where he is going.

And our first place winner for unsafe work practices goes to this guy overseeing a team of people fully dressed in hazmat gear. He looks surprisingly calm while wearing no safety protection.

I hope he at least wore sunscreen!

OSHA's Mission
All kidding aside, workplace safety and health is a serious subject, and at OSHA we take our responsibility very seriously.

I have been on the job in Washington for about two months now, and in that short time, I can already say that it is an honor to serve as the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health -- particularly in this anniversary year as OSHA celebrates 35 years of progress.

Since its inception in 1971, OSHA has helped cut workplace fatalities by more than 60 percent and occupational injury and illness rates by 40 percent. During that same period, U.S. employment has doubled -- to more than 115 million workers at 7.2 million worksites.

Today, OSHA's work continues as we strive to remind employers of their responsibility to keep their employees safe.

At the end of the day, everyone wants the same thing: to go home to their families and friends safe and whole. OSHA's mission is to help employers and employees achieve this every day.

You know, Ronald Reagan said "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'

You also know that President Reagan had a great sense of humor and a great love of public service. It wasn't government that he distrusted as much as bureaucracy that stood in the way of public servants serving The People.

So, as a public servant representing your government in Washington, it is a genuine pleasure to speak with you today about a subject that is near and dear to my heart: the safety and health of every working man and woman.

The Power of Prevention
In my nomination hearing before the Senate committee earlier this year, I spoke about my belief that the best and least expensive way for a business or organization to reduce workplace injuries, illness, and fatalities is through prevention.

This is not just my opinion. It has been scientifically measured and reported in the annual Workplace Safety Index issued each year by Liberty Mutual. The insurance company's research division looks at trends among the leading causes of the most serious workplace injuries.

Let me take a moment to tell you what the research found:
  • In 2002, serious work-related injuries cost employers almost $1 billion per week in payments to injured workers and their medical care providers.

  • The research found that over 40 percent of senior financial executives cite "productivity" as the top benefit of an effective workplace safety program. They most frequently mention "better training" as their preferred safety intervention.

  • Liberty Mutual's study also says that, despite today's lower workplace illness and injury rates, there is still a lot of work to be done. Employers need to continue "to build partnerships between risk managers, safety directors and senior financial executives."

  • The report advises that "risk managers and safety directors should continue to help senior financial executives understand the process of improving safety."

Workplace Safety Saves Money
Let me drive home my point: It is a proven fact that when employees operate under a comprehensive safety and health program, incidents of injury, illness, and fatalities go down, insurance goes down, and workers' compensation payments go down. At the same time, employee morale goes up, productivity goes up, competitiveness goes up, and profits go up.

We see proof of this in the superior performance of companies and organizations operating under our Alliances, Strategic Partnerships, and our Voluntary Protection Programs.

For example, VPP companies -- worksites where comprehensive safety and health programs have been incorporated successfully into their management systems -- achieve average injury rates 50 percent lower than other companies in their industry.

Let me give you something else to consider: Businesses with effective safety and health programs are the most cheerful places to work. I know this quality is hard to measure, but you know it when you see it. At these worksites, employers see safety and health as a mission - just like OSHA.

Enforcement's Role in a Balanced Approach
As most of you know, OSHA pursues its mission to protect American workers through a balanced approach, using
(1) Strong, fair and effective enforcement;
(2) outreach, education and compliance assistance; and
(3) cooperative and voluntary programs.

Enforcement plays an important part in OSHA's efforts to reduce workplace injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. Through our Site-Specific Target and Enhanced Enforcement programs, we send a clear message that OSHA takes its mission seriously. When we find employers who fail to uphold their worker safety and health responsibilities, we deal with them strongly.

That is why I tell employers that it is smart to come to OSHA first for advice on how to prevent workplace illness and injury.

And that is my first bit of advice to you today: Pay us a visit - before OSHA has to pay you a visit.

Workplace Safety Boosts Profits
Think of it this way: In today's highly competitive global economy, when employers are looking for ways to increase their profit margin, any savings is important. In many cases, even a one percent increase in profits can mean the difference between a company succeeding here or facing the unhappy choice of shipping American jobs out of the country -- just to compete.

But I'm not talking about saving one percent. The American Society of Safety Engineers estimates that workplace injuries rob employers of 25 percent of all their pretax corporate profits. That's a tremendous impact on the bottom line.

On the flipside, ASSE says companies that implement effective safety and health programs reduce their injury and illness rates an average of 20 percent.

So here is my pitch: It costs a company far less to institute preventive measures than to wait for the inevitable, expensive consequences of a workplace illness, accident or fatality. The savings and increased productivity that an employer will realize by investing in workplace safety can help a company survive.

The Human Toll
Now, all this time I have been talking about the economic toll on a business that does not have a comprehensive workplace safety and health program. Of course, there is another cost, and that is the economic and emotional impact of an illness, injury, or fatality on the life of an employee and all the co-workers, friends, family and the community.

Having been involved in numerous OSHA investigations in my career, I have seen the devastating effects that a single workplace fatality has on a wide circle of people connected to one employee.

Here's a statistic from the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Institute for Research on Poverty: The average workplace accident costs an employee $8,000, often forcing him to dip into savings or default on payments.

In fact, American Express reports that workplace disabilities are the number one reason people default on their home loan.

You cannot minimize these tragedies, which is why injury, illness and fatality prevention is my top priority at OSHA.

Big Blue Crane Collapse
A few minutes ago I showed you some funny pictures of workers doing unsafe things. We all laughed, but, really, an on-the-job accident is anything but funny as we will see in the following video.

On July 14, 1999, while an OSHA inspector responded to an unrelated tip about a workplace safety issue, he shot this video of "Big Blue," one of the largest cranes in the world. Here we see the initial stages of roof construction at the Brewer's Ball Park Stadium in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The construction of the retractable roof involved extensive crane use.

Keep watching and you will see how quickly things can go wrong... Three workers were killed when the boom and roof collapsed. Their widows reportedly received close to $60 million in an out-of-court settlement; no doubt, they would rather have had their husbands come home alive.

The accident delayed the opening of the baseball stadium by a year. It caused $100 million in property damage.

When the ballpark finally opened in March 2001, the Milwaukee Brewers received $20.5 million in compensation for loss of income.

And let's not forget the legal defense expenses.

Now, add it up. Think of the expenses, yes, but also consider making the phone calls to those widows, the blow to their extended families and their communities. Think of the stress on the other workers, the ambulance crew, the police -- everyone touched by this single event.

Nobody wants this kind of disaster. The damage is expensive, disruptive, heartbreaking, and irreparable.

So please, I am begging you: Don't wait for a workplace tragedy to happen to you. I want every one of you to make a promise to yourselves today that you will go back to your businesses and institute a comprehensive workplace safety program. Get your managers and your employees involved.

You can start -- today -- by visiting OSHA's web site at www.osha.gov. Our web pages are loaded with information and guidance documents to show you and your members how to keep employees healthy and safe -- and the advice is free.

If you want any of our popular QuickCards for your employees, you can go online and order a stack for free.

The same goes for a host of other publications, including our guidance documents, our free twice-monthly QuickTakes e-newsletter, facts sheets,pocket guides, and posters.

We also have a host of online training materials, including e-tools, QuickStart modules, and complete PowerPoint presentations -- among them: Lockout/Tagout and Hazard Communications.

And look to OSHA for compliance assistance: our Consultation Program, Voluntary Protection Program, our SHARP Program, Partnerships, and Alliances.

BOTTOM LINE: Workplace injuries are expensive; on-the-job fatalities are really expensive; OSHA's advice is free.

I don't know if you have ever tried this, but if you go to Google and type in "safety" or "safety and health," OSHA pops up first.

This is because more web sites link to "OSHA-dot-gov" than any other organization in our field. In fact, my "I-T" folks tell me that OSHA's web site is approaching one billion hits a year!

You know, when I talk about OSHA's impact on America's workforce, I often think of the contribution of a great American patriot, Noah Webster.

In his day, at the beginning of the American Revolution, Webster observed how Americans in different parts of the country spelled, pronounced and used words differently. There was no authority on the subject, no standard way to spell and certainly no reliable, consistent guide.

So, he spent 20 years developing the book that would make him an undisputed authority and a household name. Almost overnight, Webster's dictionary became THE RESOURCE for spelling and usage.

In the same way, I want Americans to think of OSHA as THE RESOURCE for workplace safety and health information.

Today, more people turn to OSHA for help than any other workplace safety and health organization. This is a distinction that we are extremely proud of, and it is my mission as OSHA's Administrator to make us the best resource for occupational safety and health in the world.

Questions and Answers!
Each year our correspondence manager compiles a report on questions that come into OSHA from businesses, organizations, employees, and the general public. You can imagine the wide range of questions we receive every day -- from the urgent and serious to the mundane and occasionally... bizarre.

I have with me the TOP FIVE weirdest questions of 2005. Let's take a look:

#5: "Does OSHA regulate song lists played over a store's stereo?" --
Let me tell you: Sometimes I wish we did!

#4: "Does the word 'MUST' in OSHA standards mean I HAVE to do it?"
-- The complicated, long-winded answer to that is... YES!

#3: "For employee bathrooms, what kind of toilet seat does OSHA require?"
-- [PAUSE] Go ahead, make up your own answer. I'll sit this one out!

You have to believe me. I am not making these up!

#2: "How do you go about using hazardous warning labels on products that are not hazardous?"
-- Now, see, a question like that usually prompts a return question from OSHA: "WHAT are you DOING?!!"

And...OSHA's number-one question last year:

#1 "Instead of respirators, is it okay if workers just hold their breath?"

My point is, no matter how dull or odd your question may be, if it has to do with workplace safety and health, please "Ask OSHA."

We are your best resource for answers.

Which is why I am not going to leave you holding your breath for answers. I am leaving you today with another list. You should have received a copy when you walked into the room this morning.

This is my list of ten action items that you or your managers can institute in your organization or business today to immediately change attitudes, raise awareness, and encourage workplace safety and health.

I will ask you to do just one thing more for me: When you use these ideas, please write and tell me how they work out for you. Send me your success stories and I may include them in my speeches, or post them on our web page...

...or I may feature your safety success stories in our twice-monthly OSHA QUICKTAKES newsletter which goes out to 55,000 subscribers.

-- And if you are not a subscriber yet, you can sign up at our home page. It's... free!

So, let me ask you: Have I made a convincing case for OSHA and the benefits of workplace safety? Have I persuaded you to make OSHA your favorite resource?

I hope so, because we really are in the same business... of improving lives. Together, there is so much we can do to make workplaces safer.

Just remember: We are from the government, and we are here to help.

And please... stay safe, everyone. God bless.