Remarks Prepared For
Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor
For Occupational Safety and Health
Communications Workers of America
Occupational Safety and Health Conference
San Diego, California
Saturday, October 3, 2009
Thank-you, Dave [Dave LeGrande, CWA Director of Occupational Safety and Health]. It's a pleasure and an honor to be here in San Diego, and it's good to be among friends new and old. CWA's president, Larry Cohen, and Dave LeGrande, and I became friends many years ago as we worked on safety and health issues.
You know, this being a meeting of a union associated with communications, it might be interesting to note that October 3 holds a special place in history for sending out messages: On October 3, 1922, in Washington, D.C., a photograph was transmitted for the first time over city telephone lines using a fax machine. A bit earlier, on October 3, 1906, in Berlin, at the first conference devoted to wireless telegraph technology, officials adopted "S-O-S" as the international distress signal.
In this spirit, then, I'm pleased to deliver OSHA's message to you ... in person ... and I can assure you that my news today is good - no distress signals here.
I bring you greetings from Hilda Solis, the Secretary of Labor - that would be the new Department of Labor that actually looks out for the interests of Labor.
It has been almost six months since Secretary Solis asked me to serve as Acting Assistant Secretary until a permanent Assistant Secretary is confirmed by the Senate.
President Barack Obama has nominated a distinguished scientist at George Washington University, David Michaels, who not only has an impressive academic record, but also has led the worker health and safety program at the Department of Energy. At DOE, he was the father of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, which has provided billions of dollars to Cold War veterans who have contracted cancer and other diseases building this nation's nuclear arsenal.
I know David well. We've been friends for many years and I know that he will bring to OSHA a valuable insight into the role of science in the regulatory process.
OSHA isn't in a holding pattern while we await a new leader; there's too much to do and too many workers depending on us to make things right. When I accepted the opportunity to return to OSHA, Secretary Solis asked me to start moving forward right away to refocus the Agency on its original mission - to assure safe and healthful conditions for American workers by setting and enforcing strong, protective workplace standards.
As I will relate to you today, after just a few months we are well on the way to doing that. — But first, I want to tell you how much it means to be in this room with you today, back among my labor brothers and sisters.
Modern unions put a high priority on offering their members the organizing tools, the training and the knowledge they need to prevent injuries and improve performance. This is an ongoing priority for the CWA, and I want to express my sincere thanks for the union's efforts on behalf of workers nationwide.
But, as we all know, the job isn't easy. Workers in the utility and transportation industries, and in healthcare, education and public service ? these are the people who keep our Nation running. None of these workers does what Hollywood would portray as glamorous, nor are most of them paid well, but every one is essential to the life we enjoy in America.
So why does it seem too much to ask that all employers provide these essential workers with safe workplaces or the right to organize into unions without being harassed or fired? After almost 30 years in this field, I find it astonishing, aggravating and insulting that we are still fighting these battles for basic workers' rights in far too many workplaces across our Nation.
Progress has not come easy for workers in this country. Improvements in safety conditions in our Nation did not come because a politician thought they would be a good idea, or some scientist decided that a chemical was too dangerous. Every incremental improvement in working conditions has been earned with the blood and broken bones of working people, as a result of the battles fought - some won and some lost — in thousands of workplaces and union halls across the country. Too many of those advances came too late, only after we counted the bodies destroyed by workplace hazards that could have been prevented.
As angry as I get about the all-too-slow struggle for something as basic as protecting workers, I'm filled with hope when I see the dedicated worker and health and safety activists in this room.
I didn't come back to OSHA just to make the agency better, I came back to ensure that American workplaces are safer and fewer workers are injured and killed in the workplace. A strong and effective OSHA is one means to that end; another, equally important means is a strong and knowledgeable labor movement, and that's a large part of the reason that you're here at this conference.
Let's remember that there are great benefits to working together with management on health and safety issues. Working together ? not just on paper, but also through joint health and safety committees, joint incident investigations, partnering full-time union and management health and safety representatives, and providing training for reps and their members: This is how we anticipate hazards, share solutions, and prevent tragedies.
In my experience, joint programs are the most successful way to achieve safe and healthful workplaces; however, it's also true that this approach is the most difficult to achieve. On one side, it takes a strong union that's knowledgeable about health and safety issues; on the other side, successful joint programs need managers who see the worth of safe workplaces and are willing to work with their unions to prevent workers from getting hurt.
Unfortunately, it often takes a workplace tragedy, high workers' compensation costs or a high OSHA penalty to get certain managers to see the light.
Yet, there's one item that we find in every workplace success story: a comprehensive Safety and Health Management System in which management and workers are committed and equal partners in workplace safety and health.
I know it's not always easy to get to this point. From my own experience of running AFSCME's health and safety program for 16 years, and the stories I've heard from unions, the kind of cooperation we need to see in every workplace often follows a workplace tragedy and/or a significant OSHA fine. But if important lessons are learned, if progress is made, if future fatalities and catastrophes are prevented, then the original tragedies will not have been in vain.
However, in this modern era of workplace safety and health, we need to change our thinking in one critical way: We need to move from reaction to prevention and focus on problems before they can cause harm.
This focus on prevention is very much on the mind of the new leadership in the Department of Labor and in OSHA as we take note that more than 5,000 people continue to die on the job in America every year. We must do more to reverse this deadly toll.
A Return to Strong Enforcement
Under this new administration, OSHA is heading back to the original intent of the OSH Act. We're back in the enforcement business and we're back in the standards-writing business.
One of the first things I did after walking through the door at OSHA was to tell our field staff that we were abolishing the quotas that the previous administration had set for racking up new members of the Voluntary Protection Program and Alliances. It's not that we shouldn't be recognizing those companies and associations who are going beyond the basic requirements to make workplaces safe — we should support the best of the best. However, OSHA's priority must be those employers who continue to cut corners and put their workers' lives at risk.
One other thing I did when I first arrived was largely symbolic but nevertheless important. In OSHA's main conference room at the Department of Labor, one entire wall was filled with photos of OSHA staff managers — headquarters and field. As pleasant and good-looking as these people are, I had their pictures replaced with photos of workers who'd been killed on the job. The photos were lent to us by the husbands and wives, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers of workplace victims.
OSHA must never forget who we work for. We must never forget that every day in this country 15 workers are killed on the job. All of us at OSHA must never forget to ask ourselves every evening as we go home: "What have we done today to make workplaces safer?"
On a deeper level, to emphasize this agency's return to a focus on enforcement that pursues the worst violators, the agency has formed a task force to design a new enforcement initiative. The Severe Violator Enforcement Program is intended to concentrate resources on employers who have demonstrated indifference to their OSH Act obligations. Under this new program, any systemic problems that we identify with an employer's safety and health program will trigger additional, mandatory inspections to ensure compliance with workplace safety and health standards.
OSHA will react quickly to troubling trends. Take, for example, the recent "Texas Sweep." Texas has the unfortunate distinction of seeing more construction fatalities than any other state. For that reason, we launched a safety sweep in Texas this summer, bringing inspectors from across the country. Under the Texas construction initiative begun in July, more than 850 inspections were conducted throughout the state with OSHA issuing more than 1,500 citations resulting in almost $2 million in fines.
We expect the Texas program to be the first of many examples where a much more flexible and responsive OSHA will be able to respond to troubling trends that pop up around the country.
To support our efforts, President Obama has asked for the biggest increase in OSHA's budget in anyone's memory — over 10 percent. This increase of $50.6 million for the Agency would allow us to hire more than 200 new employees — including more than 100 new inspectors, more investigators to pursue whistleblower complaints, and more staff to help develop workplace standards for safety and health.
Secretary Solis has also challenged us to increase OSHA's diversity so that the OSHA of the 21st century will look like, and sound like, and come from 21st century America.
Let me emphasize one thing: If anyone here is looking for a job ensuring that workers are able to exercise their right to a safe workplace - we're hiring!
Across the country, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is prompting a big boost in infrastructure projects, such as highway, transit and energy construction. With this increase in construction activities, OSHA will step up its inspections to ensure that everyone is working safely.
On the federal level, OSHA is raising the number of worksite inspections to 40,000 a year - increasing our presence where we're needed most.
Also, within the limits of our existing authority, OSHA is looking at ways to strengthen our penalty program. OSHA is moving in this direction not simply to punish, but to provide a real disincentive to those employers who accept worker injuries as "an unavoidable part of the cost of doing business."
We also hope that higher OSHA penalties will be seen as an incentive to adopt an effective Safety and Health Management System that combines management leadership with worker participation.
We are also going to launch a much more rigorous system of oversight for the 21 OSHA state plan programs (and the 4 Public Employee only programs.
And speaking of public employee only programs, I am pleased to announce that last month we welcomed Illinois as our fourth public employee only program. Only 25 states to go before all public employees in this country join their private sector brothers and sisters in enjoying the right to a safe workplace.
New Regulations, Guidelines and Directives
Effective workplace safety and health standards are at the heart of OSHA's mission. This is why the new leadership in the Department of Labor and in OSHA has been working to reinvigorate more than 20 items on the Regulatory Agenda and get them moving again. Many of these have literally been sitting in drawers for the last several years while workers continue to suffer avoidable injuries, illnesses and fatalities.
Since January 2009, OSHA has accelerated its efforts to develop long-awaited standards addressing hazardous exposure to crystalline silica, beryllium, and food flavorings containing diacetyl.
We announced this spring a major new regulatory initiative to protect workers from combustible dust explosions, and we expect to issue an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking this month.
OSHA recently published a direct final rule for acetylene hazards and a final rule updating the personal protective equipment consensus standards.
In construction, we are committed to publishing a cranes and derricks standard. After that, our focus will be on issuing a final rule on confined spaces.
Last Wednesday (Sept. 30) we published a proposed hazard communications safety rule to align OSHA standards with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Hazardous Chemicals. This is OSHA's first major regulatory action under the new administration. OSHA's proposal to adopt the GHS will improve the effectiveness of the hazard communications standard and help to substantially improve worker safety and health
Beyond existing standards and enforcement, OSHA must take a broader view of workplace safety and health issues.
We will look for hazardous situations where standards don't exist but are needed; and if we're going to move ahead on more and better standards, OSHA needs to find ways to streamline the cumbersome, lengthy rulemaking process.
We need to make the life of every working man and woman count, and we need to look at broader factors that contribute to occupational safety and health.
The Communication Workers of America has been a leader in this frontier, with programs designed to recognize ergonomic issues in workplaces, along with other concerns that do not receive enough attention - such as fatigue, overtime, shift work and work organization. In the past, CWA has worked with OSHA and its sister agency NIOSH on exploring these issues and finding effective remedies, and I'm hoping that we can find new partnering opportunities in the near future.
And I give credit for CWA's leadership to Dave LeGrande not so much because he is a visionary, but because, like any great union representative, he has listened to his members' problems, identified their root causes and developed programs and campaigns to address those problems.
But serious issues lie before us. We must confront the 60,000-pound elephant in the room: Ergonomics. Let's acknowledge a couple of obvious things about "ergo." First, it's a huge health and safety problem, recognized by strong science. Second, it's a huge political football that some very big players don't want to see on the field. Well, for the sake of our working men and women, we have to take the field and make some fundamental changes in America's workplaces.
We're not sure yet how we'll tackle the ergonomics problem, but one thing is certain: No agency calling itself the "Occupational Safety and Health Administration" can continue to ignore the biggest problem facing American workers.
OSHA and NIOSH can't manage this transformation alone. We need allies in the labor and environmental movements, and allies among scientists, sociologists and other professionals.
As OSHA moves into even more aggressive worker protection programs, we will need allies with spines and spirit. Instead of ceding leadership in the inevitable political debate to those ideologically driven business associations whose response to any enforcement or regulatory initiative is a reactive, unthinking "NO," we need allies in the progressive business community who will stand alongside America's labor unions and declare "Yes we can" ? because we know that America draws its economic strength from a healthy and safe workforce.
Training, Education and Outreach
In the field of workplace safety and health, prevention is our priority. Prevention is the most efficient, cost-effective and reliable way to save lives. This is why we emphasize education and training ? and our Nation's workforce needs more safety and health training.
CWA understands this. CWA used an OSHA grant years ago to create a "train the trainer" program on ergonomics, resulting in many safety and health activists passing on this knowledge others in workplaces. This training and education led, in many cases, to changes in work stations to remove or reduce sources of injuries and illness on the job.
So, we know that worker training prevents injuries and illnesses.
Last month (Sept. 18), OSHA awarded more than $6.8 million in Susan Harwood Training Grants to 30 recipients, encompassing labor unions, employer associations, colleges and universities, and other nonprofit organizations. The training grants provide two years of support for the recipients' activities on behalf of our Nation's workforce.
The grants support workplace safety and health programs that educate workers and employers in industries with high hazard and fatality rates, workers with limited English proficiency, hard-to-reach workers and supervisors, and small business employers. This year the agency received a record number of 345 applications. And soon after the Congress approves our next budget, we will launch a new round of worker training grants.
OSHA intends to look for new ways to reach out to businesses so we can work together to prevent workplace tragedies. For example, we are well aware that half the workplace fatalities each year occur in construction jobs, and that a disproportionate number of these fatalities are Hispanic workers. To address this problem, in 2010 Secretary Solis will convene a first-of-its-kind national dialogue and action summit on construction safety and the Latino community.
Now I want to turn your attention to another worker health problem that's been in the headlines and occupied much of my time lately: H1N1 flu.
Since the attacks on our country on 9/11 and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, OSHA has coordinated efforts with other government bodies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, to prepare swift, effective responses to man-made and natural emergencies. In particular, OSHA has worked closely with the CDC and NIOSH to establish worker protection protocols for pandemic flu.
As a result of this cross-agency coordination and cooperation, OSHA has published a number of documents on influenza for general industry and for health care workers.
When the H1N1 virus appeared earlier this year in Mexico, the United States and in many countries worldwide, OSHA promptly issued a number of new fact sheets, QuickCards, and guidance documents on pandemic flu preparedness. We established a Web page with links to these and other resources.
Despite these preparations, a recent study released by Harvard researchers found that just one in three businesses in our Nation believes that it's prepared to sustain its business operations without severe problems if H1N1 causes severe reductions in their workforce for two weeks. Only one in five businesses believe it could avoid major problems if high absenteeism continues for a month.
For most workers, the single most important thing that can be done to prevent the spread of the virus in the workplace is to stay home if you're sick. The federal government has called on employers across the country to develop plans to ensure that sick workers can stay home, plans that allow workers to take care of sick family members, and plans for workers to care for children who have to stay home because their school is closed.
For more information, I urge you to visit OSHA's Pandemic Flu Web page and use the free resources to develop a plan for your workplace today.
While discussing pandemic influenza, I also want to say a few words in particular about OSHA's commitment to healthcare workers-
OSHA is aware of the crucial role that healthcare workers would play in a pandemic. Nurses and other workers at every level of the healthcare industry would be on the front lines as first receivers in a health emergency that would severely test our resources and our resolve. I want to make it clear that OSHA will stand with healthcare workers to ensure their safety on the job.
If our society expects our brave healthcare workforce to come to work each day during a pandemic, then our Nation has a responsibility to ensure that you have the best personal protective equipment and the latest safety and health information.
OSHA is preparing to issue very soon a compliance instruction document that will establish the agency's enforcement policies as they relate to healthcare facilities and other worksites where workers are at a high or very high risk of occupational exposure to pandemic flu viruses.
This new document will be based on CDC guidance and provide instruction to OSHA staff to ensure that they follow uniform procedures when conducting inspections and minimizing or eliminating hazards related to pandemic flu.
It will explain the applications of the General Duty Clause in healthcare settings for hazards of exposure to influenza viruses. It will also explain our enforcement policy as it relates to the Respiratory Protection Standard and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standards such as gloves, gowns and surgical masks.
With H1N1, OSHA's focus is not just on PPE, but on overall worker protection. Our hierarchy of controls places all forms of personal protective equipment - including respirators - at the bottom of the list, below other priority approaches. Priority safety and health controls for healthcare workers include engineering controls - such as isolation areas with separate airflow design - and work practice controls such as establishing sick leave policies and prioritizing staff for vaccination. These higher-level practices, which isolate workers from hazards, can reduce the need for PPE.
You may have heard that there could be shortages of N95 respirators for health care workers. We are working closely with CDC to develop ways to minimize those shortages and to protect Health Care workers should they occur. And I want to assure hospitals that if they run short of respirators, OSHA will not cite them as long as they can show that they made a good faith effort to purchase supplies.
Health Insurance Reform
Another workplace health issue that has drawn nationwide attention is health insurance reform, and I know that this is another issue that greatly interests the CWA leadership and its members, and I certainly don't have to explain to you the critical importance of this issue for the future of this country.
You all know that the status quo of our current health insurance system is unsustainable. Skyrocketing costs are squeezing family budgets, threatening businesses' viability, consuming state and local budgets, and exploding our national deficit. At the same time, eroding coverage is leaving more and more Americans uninsured - one injury or illness away from bankruptcy. And even Americans with insurance have less security and stability than ever before.
The undeniable fact is: We have by far the most expensive health care system in the world. We are now spending roughly one in every six dollars on health care. If we do nothing: in 30 years, one out of every three dollars in our economy will be tied up in the health care system. And far too much of our spending goes to insurance bureaucracy that does nothing to improve our health.
In the last ten years, premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance have risen 133 percent - rising three times the rate of wages.
American businesses - especially small businesses - say high health costs are impeding their ability to compete, expand and hire more workers. Too often, they're forced to choose between covering their workers and staying afloat.
And health care spending today consumes 30 percent more of state and local budgets than 20 years ago - forcing governments to choose between cutting services and raising taxes.
For all Americans, the President's plan reins in the cost of health care. Health insurance reform will strengthen security and stability to those who have insurance, provide insurance to those who don't, and slow the growth of health care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government.
Charge to Safety and Health Professionals
Finally, I want to encourage everyone here to remain active in workplace safety and health. Please: Continue to take part in regulatory hearings, send us your thoughts during the comment periods, voice your concerns, and share your experience and expertise.
First and foremost, we need strong standards that protect workers, but we also need standards that work. This is where you make a difference. When OSHA is doing something right, support us by speaking up. When we're missing the mark, I know you'll be there to say so, too.
You have a great conference ahead of you. I appreciate your warm welcome, and I know you'll keep striving for safer and better workplaces for all American workers.
But as you proceed through this conference and return to work next week, here's something to keep in mind: Last November, our country voted for change. However, even after that historic election, change doesn't come by itself. It doesn't come because Barack Obama is President, or because Hilda Solis is Secretary of Labor.
Change in our Nation will only come when you work for it every day and when you demand that your political leadership - in state legislatures, Congress, the Department of Labor and the White House - act on your behalf every day.
The opportunities before us are endless, so let's never be satisfied. Seize this moment. Get involved. Make a difference.