Remarks Prepared For Delivery By
Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor
For Occupational Safety and Health
National Safety Council
2009 Conference and Expo
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
"Occupational Safety and Health Under The Obama Administration."
It's a pleasure to be here, among true believers in safety and health, and to join my distinguished panelists and moderator. This is as close to "fun" as my job gets.
My fellow panelists and I share with all of you a passion for occupational safety and health, and a desire to see all workers protected on the job. None of us want to see more people dying while trying to earn a living. Our methods and styles may differ, but we're in agreement that, as long as we see tens of thousands of workers sickened, maimed or killed on the job every year, OSHA's job isn't over.
The hard, tragic reality is that more than 5,000 men and women die every year from preventable workplace injuries - on average, that's almost 14 people every day of the year, including Saturdays and Sundays, who don't get to go home, ever again, to see their families and friends.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 charged OSHA with writing and enforcing standards to protect workers with the force of law. We're a regulatory agency first and foremost, and under the Obama Administration we're going to act like one. In this sense, it should be no surprise when Labor Secretary Hilda Solis declares that "There's a new sheriff in town."
Secretary Solis and I wish that every single business and agency across our Nation would voluntarily achieve levels of workplace safety that not only comply with OSHA standards, but also far exceed them. Unfortunately, that's wishful thinking, because, despite OSHA's efforts to recognize the best workplaces and hope that others will eagerly follow their example, other kinds of incentives are needed to get the attention of thousands of employers who still consider worker injuries simply the cost of doing business. Well, under this administration, that's not a deduction we're willing to allow.
So, OSHA is back in the standards writing business and back in the enforcement business, and this is an agency that is going to move from reaction to prevention.
Since January, OSHA has accelerated its efforts to develop long-awaited standards addressing hazardous exposure to 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 we initiated a National Emphasis Program for accurate recordkeeping.
Just last week, we published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to protect workers from combustible dust explosions, and we issued a report on problems with the Nevada state OSHA program.
In the coming months, this administration is committed to publishing a cranes and derricks standard and we'll continue working on a final rule for confined spaces in construction.
Stay tuned. We're just getting warmed up.
Under the Obama Administration, OSHA will react swiftly to troubling trends. For example, when it came to our attention that Texas has the unfortunate distinction of more construction workplace fatalities than any other state, we launched a construction safety sweep in July, bringing inspectors to Texas from across the country. OSHA conducted nearly 900 inspections throughout the state, resulting in close to 1,500 citations and fines totaling almost $2 million.
It's no secret to anyone here that, on the national level, more fatalities occur in construction than any other industry, and that each year one-third of all Hispanic workers killed on the job work in construction. To address this deadly toll, in 2010 Secretary Solis will convene a national dialogue and action summit on safety and health in the Latino community.
With OSHA's renewed emphasis on enforcement, we are establishing a Severe Violator Enforcement Program to concentrate the agency's resources on employers who have demonstrated indifference to their OSH Act obligations.
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.
And in 21st century America, this agency is going to move from reaction to prevention. Under the Obama Administration, 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 incentive for employers to respect their workers and make protection part of their daily operations.
Right now, the average penalty for a serious violation is less than $1,000 - a figure so small that I don't think anyone would consider it a sufficient deterrent to cutting corners on workplace safety.
Under the Obama Administration, OSHA will once again talk to organized labor, but we're not looking for allies only in the labor community, but also in the environmental movement, allies among students, scientists and sociologists.
We're also looking for allies in the progressive business community who, instead of reflexively rejecting every new OSHA initiative, will work constructively with America's labor unions and declare "Yes we can," - because we know that working together is the best way to achieve what we all want: safe workplaces for all American workers.
As we move forward on enforcement and standards, we're also going to focus in on how to reach workplaces with improved compliance assistance - not as a replacement for standards or enforcement, but as an enhancement. So, in addition to standards and enforcement, we will ensure that all workers and businesses, big and small, have the tools and knowledge they need to ensure safe workplaces.
This administration is going to look for ways to fix fundamental problems in the way we create and enforce standards. For example, if we're going to protect workers by moving ahead on more effective standards, OSHA needs to find ways to streamline the cumbersome, lengthy rulemaking process - particularly in the area of chemical standards. We'll only get there by working together.
Finally, I know if I don't mention it now, it will be the first question asked. What is this agency going to do about musculoskeletal injuries? Well, I think we all recognize that not only is it the most serious workplace safety and health problem facing American workers, but it's also the biggest political issue that this agency will have to face in this administration.
As we move forward on deciding how to approach the problem, we will be looking to work closely with allies with spines and spirit, not just in the labor community but also in the progressive business community. Earlier this year, when Secretary Solis visited a VPP site in San Antonio, we observed a printing plant where all lifting was automated. These are the companies we need advice from - the best companies - to help us figure out how to address the rest.
Before I leave here today, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one other health problem facing not only American workers, but all Americans. American businesses can't hope to compete domestically or globally unless they protect their vital interests with a health care system that covers everyone, that strengthens security and stability for those who have insurance, that slows the increase in costs, and that provides quality health care for everyone.
America's most precious asset is a skilled, educated and healthy worker. So, the message from this administration to employers is as basic as it gets: If we all work together to ensure that every worker has a safe workplace, everyone wins.