Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor
For Occupational Safety and Health
U.S. Department of Labor
Congressional Safety & Health Conference
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
It's a pleasure to speak with you this morning about an enormously important issue that affects every one of us every day: workplace safety and health.
Last year, more than 5,000 Americans died on the job from a work-related injury or an illness, and tens of thousands more got seriously sick or hurt in the honest, simple pursuit of a paycheck.
It shouldn't be that way; not in America, and certainly not in the halls of Congress - which include the numerous and complex series of tunnels, stairwells, corridors, offices, library stacks and construction areas in which Congressional workers toil each day for the good of their fellow citizens and the Nation. The places where you work can be as fascinating as a Dan Brown novel, but they shouldn't be as hazardous to your health and safety.
We begin by acknowledging a simple truth: Whether a workplace is involved in constructing buildings or creating public acts, and whether workers are charged with protecting the public or preserving public records and historical documents - workplace hazards exist, and they can hurt you.
This is why Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, declaring that employers are obligated to protect their employees from workplace hazards. That same Congressional act empowered OSHA to create safety and health standards for workplaces and to enforce those standards so that America's working men and women won't be afraid of getting hurt on the job.
OSHA's nearly 40 years of experience confirms that workplace injuries and illnesses, while inevitable, are also preventable. The key is to learn how to identify hazards and then institute precautions and procedures to minimize their potential for harm.
Now, while standards and enforcement are necessary and essential, I want you to understand that OSHA standards are only the ground floor of a whole structure of strategies that can keep people safe and healthy on the job.
In the very best public and private workplaces - those with the lowest rates of injuries and illness and, not coincidentally, some of the best rates of productivity - we find a Safety and Health Management System which is part of the daily operating plan.
A Safety and Health Management System, or SHMS, helps employers and workers manage workplace safety and health issues through a continuous, organized process. A SHMS eliminates or controls occupational hazards. It emphasizes strong management commitment paired with meaningful worker involvement, and it calls for the employers and workers, together, to set specific, measurable goals for continuous improvement.
Other federal worksites have found great success with SHMS.
A little less than a decade ago, the United States Mint took a comprehensive look at its worker safety and health issues and decided to create and implement a Safety and Health Management System for its worksite in Philadelphia. This is the largest mint in the world, covering five acres and employing 521 workers. Management and workers got together, formed joint safety teams, identified the major safety and health problems in the plant, instituted preventions and controls, added or beefed up worker training on safety practices, monitored and charted their progress, and set goals for continual improvement.
Here are the results: In the first four years of operating under a SHMS, the Mint saw the number of worker injuries requiring first aid drop from 219 cases to 35 - that's an 84 percent reduction in injuries! The Mint also saw its OSHA recordable injuries fall from 121 to 17 - that's an 88 percent decrease. Now, wait - it gets better: In four years, operating with a SHMS, the Mint saw its lost time injuries virtually evaporate, dropping from 86 …to 5.
Overall, from the year 2000 to 2004, the total number of injuries and illnesses reported at the Mint went from 340 to 50. Eight years later, the Mint stands out among its peers as it continues to rank more than 70 percent better than its industrial sector peers for worker injuries and illnesses. In 2008, $750,000 was allocated for the Mint's Safety Division, reflecting management commitment to worker safety and health. Today the Mint continues to implement an effective SHMS and continues to provide outstanding worker safety and health protections.
OSHA's fellow advocates for workplace safety and health - the American Society of Safety Engineers and the National Safety Council - agree: an effective SHMS can be transforming and lifesaving.
So, why does a SHMS work? This system works because it promotes practical management techniques that can be put into action immediately. Under the framework of a SHMS, employers and workers learn from experiences, causing them to make management and workplace modifications that should improve their safety and health record.
Protecting safety and health is not an isolated, random activity. In the best, most successful companies, it's integrated into every work process. This systemic approach shows how safety and health is not the responsibility of a few people; everyone is accountable and everyone takes ownership for the organization's safety and health performance.
Employers who have implemented a SHMS report a wide range of benefits, including -
- reduced costs for workers' compensation claims
- lower health insurance premiums
- fewer repair and rebuilding costs from equipment and property damage
- fewer inspections, fines and legal defense costs
- less absenteeism and higher return-to-work rates following an injury or illness
- less time and money invested in replacing and retraining workers
- improved work practices, increased productivity, more innovative design and planning, and higher quality products and services
- higher job satisfaction, morale and employee retention
- a positive organizational reputation - which can make a business or agency more competitive, durable and successful
When hazards in the workplace go unchecked, the consequences can be devastating. Investigations, insurance issues, fines and even lawsuits resulting from a workplace tragedy can be time-consuming, disruptive and expensive. First, the loss of a single trained worker to an injury or illness may deprive a workgroup of critical skills and knowledge; the result is added costs to hire and train someone else. Second, managing post-injury personnel issues often requires considerable time and attention of a business owner or agency director, as well as several key managers.
Bottom line: The benefits of implementing a SHMS far outweigh any costs. Above all - do we have to say it? - you can't put a price on the loss of a fellow human being, a co-worker, a friend, somebody's parent or child.
Safe workplaces deliver better products and services faster, they have lower rates of turnover, enjoy better labor-management relations, and stand to be more productive and efficient.
Here's some good news to consider: A Safety and Health Management System doesn't have to be complicated or expensive to be effective. It usually doesn't require additional workers, especially in smaller organizations or businesses. A simple and inexpensive SHMS can be impressively effective, as long as it thoughtfully covers the core elements.
OSHA's guidelines underscore six core elements in a SHMS. Each element is necessary to ensure the success of the overall system, and all the elements are interrelated:
- Management Leadership
- Employee Participation
- Hazard Identification and Assessment
- Hazard Prevention and Control
- Education and Training
- System Evaluation and Improvement
So, where can you find a blueprint to create your own SHMS and begin enjoying the benefits of safer, more healthful workplaces? Look no farther than OSHA's Web site, where we have a self-paced learning eTool devoted to the SHMS process. Also, in your information packets is a handy OSHA fact sheet on SHMS.
A workplace tragedy can happen tomorrow. Don't wait. Get online, read about the core elements, put together a team to tailor a SHMS for your workplace needs, and put it into practice as soon as you can - and let's leave the occupational hazards of blood, guts, fear and suspense to Dan Brown.