Remarks Prepared For
Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor
For Occupational Safety and Health
OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH CONFERENCE
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Pennsylvania Governor's Occupational Safety and Health Conference
I want to thank Doug Dvorchak for his invitation, and Governor Ed Rendell and Pennsylvania Labor and Industry Secretary Sandi Vito for their leadership in workplace safety and health.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and I are pleased to see the efforts of the governor and the Department of Labor and Industry are paying off:
Here in Pennsylvania, in just one year, from FY 2008 to 2009, workplace fatalities dropped by nearly half. This translates into 35 fewer funerals in 2009 - and 35 more workers who will be able to wake up every day, support their families and help make their business or organization more productive.
I deeply appreciate the safety and health professionals who work hard, day in and day out, all year long to protect their co-workers. When things go right most days, they may not always get recognized, but they should. These people are heroes.
I know you are eager to hear about the future of OSHA and the new leadership in the Department of Labor.
To lead OSHA under the new administration, President Barack Obama has nominated a distinguished scientist at George Washington University, David Michaels. David 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 contracted cancer and other diseases building this nation's nuclear arsenal.
I know David well. We've been friends for many years and I'm confident that he will bring to OSHA a valuable insight into the role of science in the regulatory process.
Meanwhile, 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 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act that created this agency.
OSHA is also back in the business of working with Labor, which is why I'm pleased to recognize OSHA's new Labor Liaison for Region 3, Jim Touey.
As an example of OSHA's renewed emphasis on enforcement, we are establishing a Severe Violator Enforcement Program that will concentrate resources on employers demonstrating indifference to their OSH Act obligations. Under this initiative, any systemic problems that we find with an employer's safety and health program will trigger additional, mandatory inspections to ensure compliance.
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 this initiative, OSHA conducted nearly 900 inspections throughout the state, resulting in close to 1,500 citations and fines totaling almost $2 million.
Since January, OSHA has launched or continued National Emphasis Programs to focus its resources on reducing industry-related hazards, including combustible dust, petroleum refineries, and highly hazardous chemicals in chemical plants.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 has given a big boost to infrastructure projects, such as highway, transit and energy construction. This has also prompted an increase in OSHA inspections to make sure everyone is following the rules and working safely.
OSHA is raising the number of worksite inspections to 40,000 a year - increasing our presence where we're needed most.
And... 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. Also, Secretary Solis has challenged us to increase OSHA's diversity so that the OSHA of the 21st century will look like, sound like, and come from 21st century America.
Over the years, improvements in workplace safety in our Nation have been earned mostly through tragedies - enacting reforms after workers have died on the job. In the 21st century, 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.
OSHA has worked closely with labor, organizations and employers in Pennsylvania to advance the cause of worker safety. For example, our Philadelphia Area Office formed a partnership with the builder Torcon and the Building Trades of Philadelphia to reduce on-the-job injuries at the 55,000-square-foot Samuel & Son Seafood processing facility in Philadelphia. When the project was complete in July 2009, there were NO recordable injuries, illnesses or fatalities for the entire construction period.
I'm hopeful when I find examples like this of employers and workers working together to reduce injuries and illnesses.
In fact, in every workplace success story we find a common element: An effective Safety and Health Management System in which management and workers are committed and equal partners in workplace safety and health.
The Right Incentives
Now, a word of caution: 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.
OSHA is looking at ways to strengthen our penalty program. We are moving in this direction not simply to punish, but to provide a strong disincentive to those employers who say worker injuries are just 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 Emphasis 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.
New Regulations, Guidelines and Directives
We're also moving forward with the Regulatory Agenda - standards writing and rulemaking.
Since January, OSHA has accelerated its efforts to develop long-awaited standards addressing hazardous exposure to crystalline silica, beryllium, and food flavorings containing diacetyl.
In August, we published a direct final rule for acetylene hazards.
In September, we issued a final rule updating the personal protective equipment consensus standards. Last month we also proposed aligning OSHA's standards with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Hazardous Chemicals.
Earlier this month, we revised our enforcement policies for fall protection during steel erection, and tomorrow we will publish an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to protect workers from combustible dust explosions.
In the coming months, this administration is committed to publishing a cranes and derricks standard and a final rule for confined spaces in construction.
Training and Education
Safe jobs are OSHA's priority. Providing workers and employers the knowledge 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 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 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 at the request of business owners.
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.
In OSHA, 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.
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 progress, where we simply count the number of standards issued, or the number of inspections, or the amount of fines issued. In the future, we must examine the things that are hard to count but nevertheless make a fundamental 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.
Very soon, we must confront the 60,000-pound elephant in the room: Ergonomics. This is a huge health and safety problem, recognized by strong science. 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 because people are hurting and they need help.
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.
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.
Health Insurance Reform
Another workplace health issue that has drawn nationwide attention is health insurance reform.
The status quo of our current health insurance system is unsustainable. 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 here in Pennsylvania. I appreciate your warm welcome, and I know you'll keep striving for safer and better workplaces for all American workers.