Remarks Prepared For
Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor
For Occupational Safety and Health
GREATER ST. LOUIS SAFETY AND HEALTH CONFERENCE
St. Louis, Missouri
Thursday, October 15, 2009
I want to thank Bill McDonald for his introduction, Leslie Foran for her invitation, and St. Louis University for co-sponsoring this event.
I deeply appreciate the safety and health professionals who have had to work hard to protect their co-workers so that everyone can go home at the end of every shift, every workday - while not always getting recognized when things go right most days.
OSHA wants to work with you to address workplace safety and health problems. We need to move from reaction to prevention. This approach is very much on the mind of the new leadership in DOL and in OSHA as we take note that more than 5,000 people continue to die on the job in America every year.
In every workplace success story we find a common element: A comprehensive Safety and Health Management System in which management and workers are committed and equal partners in workplace safety and health.
Bill McDonald praised St. Louis for how well the community of business associations and unions work together, and that's a good thing, especially during hard economic times. Businesses can't afford the financial burden workplace injuries place on them. I applaud how labor and management have made keeping everyone safe on the job a priority.
Workplace safety and health can be endangered during a recession, especially when businesses are struggling to cut costs and maintain productivity with fewer workers. When workers are asked to take on extra duties, put in longer hours, or work at a faster pace, they will experience increased stress and fatigue. They will feel pressured to cut corners on safety and health procedures to get the job done. Training is cut and preventive maintenance is often deferred. However, let's be very clear: Even in a recession, skimping on safety and health requirements is a shortcut to disaster.
This is why OSHA is encouraging employers to take a continuous, systematic approach to workplace safety.
I know you are eager to hear about the future of OSHA and the new leadership in the Department of Labor.
David Michaels is the nominee for Assistant Secretary. He'll bring to OSHA a valuable insight into the role of science in the regulatory process.
As the daughter of proud union members, Secretary Solis understands the hopes and dreams of workers and the struggles they face every day on the job. As a former Congresswoman with constituents who suffered from workplace illnesses like popcorn lung, she understands the importance of protecting workers.
The Secretary and I are committed to a strong federal role in setting standards and enforcing workplace safety and health, as mandated in the original OSH Act that created this agency.
As Secretary Solis has said, OSHA is back in the enforcement and standards-writing business.
The new Severe Violator Enforcement Program is intended to concentrate resources on employers who have demonstrated indifference to their Occupational Safety and Health 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 swiftly to troubling trends. Take, for example, the recent "Texas Sweep." Texas has the unfortunate distinction of seeing more construction workplace fatalities than any other state. For that reason, we launched a construction safety sweep in Texas in July, bringing inspectors from across the country. Under the Texas construction initiative, more than 850 inspections were conducted throughout the state, with OSHA issuing nearly 1,500 citations resulting in almost $2 million in fines.
Since January, OSHA has launched or continued National Emphasis Programs to focus its resources on reducing key, industry-related hazards, including combustible dust, petroleum refineries and highly hazardous chemicals in chemical plants.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is prompting a big boost in infrastructure projects, such as highway, transit and energy construction, and the need for increased OSHA inspections to make sure everyone is following the rules and working safely.
OSHA is hiring. The fiscal 2010 budget calls for recruiting 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 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.
OSHA is raising the number of worksite inspections to 40,000 a year - increasing our presence where we're needed most.
OSHA is looking at ways to strengthen our penalty program. OSHA is moving in this direction not simply to punish, but to provide a strong disincentive to those employers who say worker injuries are an unavoidable part of the cost of doing business. We 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.
This month, we launched a National Enforcement Program to confront recordkeeping problems. Congressional hearings, studies and media reports have all described serious accounts of underreporting as well as incentive and discipline programs that discourage workers from reporting when they're sick or hurt. Accurate injury and illness records are essential for OSHA to target inspections, determine priorities and save lives. OSHA is using $1 million of its budget to address this problem.
Here in the Greater St. Louis area, OSHA is addressing local worker safety and health concerns with a number of Local Emphasis Programs focused on demolitions, electrical hazards, powered industrial trucks and residential construction. In agriculture and forestry, LEPs target grain handling, cotton gin mechanical hazards, logging and sawmills.
New Regulations, Guidelines and Directives
We're also moving forward with the Regulatory Agenda - standards writing and rulemaking.
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, OSHA recently revised the steel erection compliance directive for the steel erection standard to change two enforcement policies related to tripping hazards and installation of nets or floors.
We are committed to publishing a cranes and derricks standard. After that, our focus will be on issuing a final rule on confined spaces in construction.
On 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.
More news on the regulatory agenda will be provided later this morning by Mandy Edens from OSHA's Directorate of Standards and Guidance.
Training and Education
Safe jobs are our priority. Providing workers and employers the knowledge and tools they need to ensure safe working conditions is the best way to prevent workers from getting injured or killed on the job.
Last month (Sept. 18), OSHA awarded more than $6.8 million in Susan Harwood Training Grants to 30 recipients, including grants to 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 345 applications — and soon after the Congress approves our next budget, we will launch a new round of worker training grants.
OSHA is continuing to strengthen the integrity of its 36-year-old Outreach Training Program by improving how trainers become authorized to teach and ensuring that these trainers are in compliance with OSHA guidelines. To crack down on fraudulent trainers, the agency recently published an "Outreach Trainer Watch List" of those who have had their trainer authorizations revoked or suspended.
On-site consultation is an effective prevention technique especially suited to small businesses that may not have a full-time safety and health professional on staff. Last year, professionals in State-operated offices across the Nation conducted nearly 32,000 on-site consultations.
OSHA's newest brochure on consultation services describes how this free, confidential service can help a small business improve workplace safety and health. Copies in English and Spanish may be downloaded or ordered from OSHA's Web site.
It's great to be here in the city of St. Louis, which is known nationwide as the "Gateway to the West," leading to new frontiers.
OSHA, too, is looking to new frontiers. We are looking at all our programs and resources to ensure that we are placing proper emphasis and support where they're needed most.
Over the past several years, the Government Accountability Office has issued two major reports that address the problems of oversight, documentation, and effectiveness of our cooperative programs, especially the Voluntary Protection Programs - "VPP." OSHA is reviewing these concerns and the GAO's recommendations for addressing them.
We are also looking at the broader picture. With the involvement and support of our stakeholders, we are considering how our cooperative programs should fit into OSHA's overall goals and budget. Our aim is to strike a proper balance with our emphasis on standards and enforcement.
We have nothing against recognizing those companies that go above and beyond minimum health and safety standards; but in a time of scarce resources, this administration will put its energy and resources into those companies that need the most help and attention.
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 very well aware that half the workplace fatalities each year occur in construction jobs, and a disproportionate number of these deaths are Hispanic workers. To address this deadly trend, in 2010 Secretary Solis will convene a national dialogue and action summit on safety and the Latino community.
OSHA will also look for hazardous situations where standards don't exist but are needed.
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 also need to move beyond the traditional ways of measuring our progress, simply counting the number of standards issued, or counting the number of inspections conducted, or counting the amount of fines issued. In the future, we need to start examining the things that are hard to count but nevertheless make a fundamental and enormous impact on work in this country - such as the way work is organized and the impact of work hours, fatigue, and health and safety programs.
And soon 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 put it on the field and make some fundamental changes in America's workplaces.
OSHA and its sister agency, NIOSH, can't manage this transformation alone. We need allies in the labor and environmental movements, and allies among students, scientists and sociologists.
As OSHA moves into even more aggressive 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.
A worker health problem that's been in the headlines and occupied much of my time lately is the H1N1 flu.
A worldwide outbreak of a severe strain of influenza could disrupt our economy and our society for weeks and quite possibly many months. In a worst-case situation, employers in affected regions of our country could face as much as 40 percent absenteeism in their workforce.
Two years ago, OSHA published two major guidance documents to help employers prepare their workplaces for an influenza pandemic. OSHA recently issued a number of new fact sheets, QuickCards, and guidance documents on Pandemic Flu preparedness. We have established a Web page with links to these and other resources.
Despite these preparations, a recent study 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.
To minimize the impact of a pandemic, employers and workers must come together and develop, test, and implement a comprehensive plan to prepare workplaces and protect themselves. Visit OSHA's Pandemic Flu Web page and use the free resources to develop a plan for your workplace today.
Protecting Healthcare Workers
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 workers to come to work each day during a pandemic, then our Nation has a responsibility to ensure that they 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.
You know that the status quo of our current health insurance system is unsustainable. The undeniable fact is: We have by far the most expensive health care system in the world. 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.
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 have any, and slow the growth of health care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government.
Charge to Safety Professionals
Let me conclude with these thoughts. I urge you to remain active in workplace safety. Get involved and stay involved in the rulemaking process. Make a difference.
Speak up at hearings and during comment periods. Voice your concerns and share your experience and expertise.
Give your CEOs your perspective to help balance their decision making.
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.