• Information Date
  • Presented To
    First China International Forum on Workplace Emergency Management and Rescue
  • 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NOTICE: This is an OSHA Archive Document, and may no longer represent OSHA Policy. It is presented here as historical content, for research and review purposes only.

Remarks Prepared for delivery by

Edwin G. Foulke, Jr.

Assistant Secretary of Labor
U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration

First China International Forum on Workplace
Emergency Management and Rescue

Beijing, China
Thursday, September 27, 2007


Thank-you for your kind introduction and warm welcome.

State Council Secretary Lu, Minister Li, and Executive Director General Bai Ran, thank-you for your invitation to be here. I appreciate the opportunity to participate in the important discussions here at the 2007 First China International Forum on Workplace Emergency Management and Rescue.

I wish to thank the State Administration of Work Safety for hosting this event, and I thank the National Workplace Emergency Management Center and the National Center for International Exchange and Cooperation on work Safety for making this Forum possible.

36 years ago the government of the United States established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration - "OSHA" ? at a time in America when the government recognized a need to take a firm leadership role to protect the working men and women in our country. Government employees in OSHA regard their Agency's life-saving mission as a solemn responsibility on behalf of their fellow citizens.

In the United States, OSHA is the primary agency of the federal government responsible for ensuring the safety and health of private sector employees as well as federal government employees. The workplaces we oversee are diverse - more than 7 million offices, factories, shipyards, hotels, hospitals, concert halls, and construction sites.

OSHA creates and publishes the national standards for workplace safety and health which employers in both businesses and government agencies are obligated by law to follow. OSHA also enforces these standards, which means our investigators are authorized to issue notices of violations and monetary penalties. In the most serious cases of workplace fatalities, businesses that violate the law may face criminal prosecution.

In addition to creating standards and enforcing regulations, OSHA has a third role, and that is helping employers comply with our standards. Workplace health and safety rules can be complex, and it is the duty of the government to help the regulated community understand and comply with these standards. Compliance assistance better protects employees by helping to prevent injuries from happening in the first place.

A truism of life is that the survival of any entity - an agency, a business, or even a nation - depends on how well it responds to the unexpected. In any culture, the stories of heroes celebrate how they adapt, innovate, and succeed against long odds. In this sense, the history of OSHA is the story of thousands of dedicated government employees who adapt to the challenges of their time. Today we are meeting to discuss how each of our nations, individually and working together, adapt their preparations and management procedures to successfully address new and changing emergencies that confront us in the 21st century.

In 1971, the creators of OSHA probably envisioned that the major impact of this Agency would be in the traditional workplaces of factories, warehouses and construction sites. OSHA's early development of standards focused on these industries because they were where most men and women found employment.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, America industry remained productive even as increasing numbers of people were also finding work in the expanding service sector. OSHA responded to this trend by adding standards and guidance documents to address hazards in these new workplaces. The development of new cooperative program initiatives also provided opportunities for businesses and government to partner with OSHA to improve worker safety and health through labor, management and government cooperation.

Advances in materials technology have presented OSHA with new workplace hazards that were unforeseen by OSHA's founders. The Agency has responded by applying our reliable, core principles of occupational safety and health to emerging production methods and scientific discovery.

The tragedy of September 11, 2001, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and even the collapse of the interstate highway bridge in the city of Minneapolis last month presented OSHA with a new dimension of challenges as this Agency sought to protect responders and clean-up crews. OSHA has adapted to these difficult challenges by providing professional technical assistance and support.

Following these catastrophic events in the United States, the importance of emergency preparedness emerged as an essential element in an overall safety and health plan for any business or agency, regardless of size or level of government.

In my remarks today I will share with you some of the lessons OSHA has learned as the Agency has worked with employers and employees to reduce occupational injuries, illnesses and fatalities.

Let me begin with the most recent emergency in Minneapolis. Many of you may be familiar with this emergency - it made international news because a structural failure of this sort is such a rare event in the United States. It is true that this incident is on a much smaller scale than the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City or the widespread destruction from Hurricane Katrina; however, OSHA's participation in the emergency response to the bridge collapse presents an example of how we have absorbed lessons learned from previous emergencies.

In the wake of the August 1, 2007, bridge collapse on Interstate Highway 35 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, our State government counterparts - OSHA State Plan officials - immediately mobilized to ensure that people engaged in emergency response - public safety officials, investigators, and recovery and cleanup crews - would all work safely in the weeks and months ahead. Federal OSHA assigned personnel from our national, regional and area offices to assist State government officials.

From the early hours of the bridge collapse, Federal and State OSHA personnel were on the scene 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Among Federal OSHA's staff members were individuals with hazard expertise in cranes, road construction, chemicals, diving, and structural engineering.

Federal OSHA was substantially involved at the site of the bridge collapse. During recovery and demolition operations of this type there is potential airborne exposure to silica and possibly lead. Diving, use of cranes and rigging, falls from elevated work platforms, and compromised structural integrity of working surfaces are all potential occupational hazards in this situation. There are also biological hazards associated with handling remains of people killed in the bridge collapse.

In an emergency situation, people look to OSHA to provide informed risk assessment. Hazard communication is essential in workplace safety, but especially so in emergency situations. The first hours of an emergency response are particularly hazardous, when communication may be impaired by technology, disorganization, and sheer lack of information. In the case of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, jammed cellular phone lines made it difficult for many officials to communicate with response personnel who were on the scene. From an event like this we learn that it is essential for responders to have the right communication devices to contact OSHA and other agencies that can help them to stay safe while managing the emergency.

As quickly as possible following the bridge collapse, Federal OSHA assessed the situation and took steps to distribute brief, easy-to-understand technical information documents. These "QuickCards" explain how to recognize several relevant hazards, including scaffolding, sun exposure, demolition, heat stress, wood chippers, portable generators, lead in construction, work zone safety and silica hazards. These pocket-sized cards are laminated to improve their durability, and one side is printed in English, the other in Spanish, because we recognize that a large proportion of our working population speak Spanish as a first language.

Our primary objective is to communicate in whatever form will most quickly and effectively educate our target audience. Our challenge is to recognize the particular safety and health hazards that may be encountered by emergency response and recovery personnel on the scene. By adapting our methods of communication to the unique needs of each emergency situation, OSHA remains focused on its goal: ensuring that there will be no more casualties.

It is important to remember that an emergency, regardless of its size or cause, significantly disrupts vital and essential government and private sector services. In the early hours and days of an emergency, the goal of OSHA is to provide technical assistance to keep everyone safe. In such situations, consideration must be given to striking a balance between government's responsibility to enforce workplace safety and health standards, and an equal responsibility to help others comply with laws intended to protect them. In the early stages of an emergency response, the emphasis should be on providing technical assistance; in the latter stages of a response, agencies must continue to communicate and coordinate to determine when a "return to normalcy" phase should signal a return to enforcement.

In America, we have learned many lessons from recent national emergencies. The attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, was a man-made disaster which resulted in the longest burning man-made fire in history and the loss of 3,000 lives. The series of storms led by hurricane Katrina in 2005 was a natural disaster covering 90,000 square miles, an area equivalent to the size of Great Britain. In both cases, and under difficult circumstances, OSHA helped to increase the safety of the thousands of employees involved in the massive recovery efforts.

Let us briefly consider lessons learned from these emergencies:

Six years ago this month, more than 1,000 OSHA employees working 24 hours a day, seven days a week joined forces with the recovery and demolition crews at the site of the World Trade Center in New York City. In the eight months during which OSHA provided technical assistance and safety and health training, not one life was lost. OSHA facilitated a partnership with New York City officials, the employee unions and private sector contractors; the result was a formal and comprehensive safety and health plan that was instrumental in providing overall site safety for everyone involved in the response effort.

In the wake of Katrina and the other hurricanes of 2005, OSHA deployed teams to a recovery site of 90,000 square miles spread over five states to reduce the workplace dangers for rescue, recovery and rebuilding crews. A year later, we were still there. Once again, OSHA was instrumental in preventing illnesses, injuries and fatalities among work crews during this extraordinary recovery effort.

OSHA's experience in these disasters demonstrated some critical lessons in workplace safety and health management:
  • First: It is essential that every employer develop and implement an emergency response plan to protect employees against catastrophic events, whether man-made or natural. These plans should include procedures for protecting the safety and health of those employees at every worksite who will be responding in an emergency.

  • Second: President Bush has mandated the nationwide use of a consistent emergency response structure that originated in America from our experience battling forest fires. This structure is called the "Incident Command System." This system organizes responders from various levels of government and expertise to maximize their effectiveness and reduce the duplication of efforts during response operations and planning. OSHA has trained its employees on how to integrate into this system to provide effective assistance.

  • Third: From 9-11 and Katrina, we understand that every business' emergency response plan should include procedures to facilitate the arrival of external responders - such as firefighters, medical personnel, and police.

  • Fourth: Whether the number of employees at a site is large or small, an employer's emergency response plan should also be coordinated with the plans drawn up by local officials in their communities.

  • Last, but certainly not least: Plans cannot be effective unless they are tested. It is essential that emergency preparation include exercises that engage all levels of government and the private sector, and it is crucial that the lessons learned from these exercises be applied forward.
Indeed, the numerous lessons learned from 9/11 and Katrina can be summed up in two words: Be Prepared. OSHA practices this credo every day as we strive to help keep America's workplaces safe and healthful.

Now OSHA is engaged in a new national effort - to prepare an effective, coordinated emergency response to a possible flu pandemic. For nearly a year OSHA examined workplace safety and health concerns related to this threat, and then developed a pair of guidance documents that focus on recognizing and combating the hazards of a pandemic.

Earlier this year, OSHA published two guidance documents to help our nation's employers prepare. One focuses specifically on the protection of Health Care Workers, while the other provides advice for general workplaces. These guidance documents offer examples of changes in workplaces that can reduce the spread of influenza, and recommend procedures that businesses can put in place to help ensure that they can continue to operate during a pandemic.

Coordination among many federal departments and agencies, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was necessary to produce these pandemic guidance documents, and the happy result is that we can offer guidance that is consistent with the recommendations of these other government experts. All Federal pandemic influenza planning and preparedness activities are being carried out in accordance with President Bush's National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza. All Federal agencies are working closely to assure clear and consistent action by the government. All Federal information on pandemic influenza is placed on the Web site www.pandemicflu.gov to provide a single source for reliable and current information to the American people.

When agencies across the spectrum of government work together to speak with one voice, the result is a consistent and coherent message that instills the public with confidence to follow the advice of authorities.

In closing, I would like to underscore the foundation of effective workplace emergency management and rescue: All parties - including agencies and institutions as well as employers working in concert with employees - must develop and test plans long before emergencies arise.

Emergency management depends on the coordination and cooperation of many entities in both the public and private sector working together. Government agencies cannot manage an emergency response alone; employers with effective emergency plans have an essential, responsible role as well.

Communication - early and often - is essential to success. Make no mistake: The safety of human lives depends on everyone being trained to respond immediately. Communication plans must include proper procedures and equipment, and responders must possess a clear understanding of the assignment of responsibilities and procedures.

Emergency management and rescue in our workplaces also depends on each organization developing within its infrastructure adequate resources that can learn from experience and also continually anticipate new threats - both natural and man-made.

This is "the power of prevention," and it is the most enduring and effective lesson OSHA can share with you today.

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.