Remarks Prepared For Delivery By
Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor
For Occupational Safety and Health
Edison Electric Institute
Contractor Safety Summit
Thursday, November 5, 2009
I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you this afternoon about the direction of OSHA under the current administration here in Washington, and what this means to the electric power industry in terms of protecting your workers.
I'm grateful for the invitation from Brian Wolff [EEI Senior Vice President, External Affairs] on behalf of EEI's chairman and president.
I congratulate EEI for holding this safety summit. With all the talk these days about conserving energy and sustaining the environment, it's important to remember the obligation to conserve and sustain the lives of workers.
For the electric industry, OSHA's message is clear: Keep your workers adequately protected by adhering to the safety and health standards for your industry. This includes providing workers with Personal Protective Equipment and up-to-date safety and health training.
I know you're eager to hear about the future of OSHA, the new leadership in the Department of Labor, and the impact on your industry.
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. This program has provided billions of dollars to Cold War veterans who contracted cancer and other diseases while building this Nation's nuclear arsenal.
David and I have 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. David's appointment is awaiting confirmation by the U.S. Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
Meanwhile, OSHA is moving forward with an aggressive agenda.
OSHA has a single, consistent priority: To protect our Nation's working men and women from workplace injuries and illnesses.
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, especially as we remember that more than 5,000 people continue to die on the job in America every year.
Soon after I arrived at OSHA, I did something largely symbolic but nevertheless important to underscore our priority. In OSHA's main conference room in Washington, D.C., the prior administration filled one entire wall with photos of OSHA staff managers - headquarters and field. As pleasant and good-looking as these people are, I replaced their pictures with photos of workers killed on the job. The photos were lent to us by the husbands and wives, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers of workplace victims.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 charged OSHA with writing and enforcing standards to protect workers. We're a regulatory agency first and foremost, and under the Obama Administration we're acting like one. Therefore, it's hardly a surprise when Labor Secretary Hilda Solis says "There's a new sheriff in town."
As an example of OSHA's renewed emphasis on enforcement, we're establishing a Severe Violator Enforcement Program that will concentrate resources on employers who demonstrate 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.
With more focus on enforcement and standards, 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.
Under this administration, OSHA will react swiftly to troubling trends. For example, when it came to our attention that Texas ranked first in the Nation for construction workplace fatalities, we launched a construction safety sweep in July, bringing inspectors to Texas from all across the country. We 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.
More recently, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is giving a big boost to infrastructure projects, such as highway, transit and energy construction, including support for green jobs that protect the environment. I realize that these stimulus projects mean a great deal to the electric power industry as it works to upgrade older systems and expand into geothermal, solar, and wind power.
In fact, as you all know, just last week (Oct. 28), President Obama announced $3.4 billion in grants to improve the nation's electrical grid and, as an added benefit, create jobs.
As you would expect, these increases in federally funded projects, which are putting more people to work, are also prompting an increase in OSHA inspections to make sure everyone is following the rules and working safely.
With more inspections, look for more - and bigger - citations. OSHA is looking at ways to strengthen its penalty program and get our message across to employers that they cannot gamble with workers' lives. Right now, the average penalty for a serious violation is less than $1,000 - a figure so low that I don't think anyone treats this as a deterrent to cutting corners on workers' safety and health.
Under this administration, employers who fail to live up to their legal and moral obligation to protect their workers will find that OSHA's patience has an end.
Four years after safety violations at a refinery in Texas City, Texas, operated by BP Products North America, resulted in a massive explosion - with 15 deaths and 170 people injured - OSHA determined that the company has failed to correct potential hazards that continue to threaten workers' health and safety. On October 30, OSHA issued $87.4 million in proposed penalties to BP - the largest in OSHA's history.
OSHA is moving in the direction of tougher citations and penalties not simply to punish, but to provide a powerful incentive for employers to respect their workers and make protection part of their daily operations.
State Plan Oversight
When it comes to standards and enforcement, I think that everyone appreciates clarity and consistency, which is why OSHA is strengthening its oversight of state plans.
To be blunt: The deadly shortcomings that we discovered earlier this year during our evaluation of Nevada OSHA's safety program convinced me that we must make significant changes in how federal OSHA oversees all the state plan programs. Our aim is to achieve better performance and consistency throughout all the state plans.
OSHA values state plans. Many have shown that they have the flexibility to deal with workplace hazards that are sometimes not addressed by federal OSHA. This agency strongly supports their initiative and dedication.
Now and in the future, federal OSHA will work closely with state plans and provide assistance before a state's program becomes deficient.
As I testified to Congress last week (October 29), we're not trying to change the nature of the relationship between Federal OSHA and State plans, but we need to speak with one voice and assure American workers that they will receive adequate protection regardless of the state in which they work.
Accurate Records, Good Incentives
OSHA is also concerned about accuracy in reporting workplace injuries and illnesses.
On October 1, OSHA announced a new 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.
I can't overemphasize the importance of accurate injury and illness records. OSHA uses these numbers to target inspections, set priorities, and determine whether industries and workplaces are taking adequate action to protect the health and safety of their workers. This isn't bureaucratic paperwork. Accurate recordkeeping is vital information that OSHA and employers need to save lives.
OSHA will also take a close look at incentive programs that have the effect of discouraging workers from reporting injuries and illnesses. These include programs that discipline workers who are injured or that offer safety competitions that penalize individual workers or groups of workers when someone reports an injury or illness.
Let me be absolutely clear: OSHA will not tolerate programs that discourage workers and managers from reporting injuries and illnesses.
With a renewed emphasis on standards and enforcement, it's logical for businesses to ask, "Where does this put OSHA's cooperative programs?"
One of the first things I did this spring after walking through the door at OSHA was to tell our field staff that we were abolishing quotas set by the previous administration for racking up new participants in cooperative programs. Understand: we've abolished the quotas, not the programs that indeed do a lot of good.
We recognize that that there are great companies and associations who go beyond OSHA's basic requirements to make their workplaces safe - we wish everyone followed their example of excellence.
However, while workers continue to die by the thousands across our Nation every year, OSHA's priority and our limited resources must focus on those employers who continue to put their workers' lives at risk - employers who pay lip service to basic worker protection, who consider injuries and illnesses simply a cost of doing business.
Well, I'm here to say that on-the-job fatalities are more than figures in an accountant's ledger; they're human beings who have a legal right to a safe and healthful workplace.
And, with OSHA back in the standards writing business and back in the enforcement business, we're no longer waiting to react after a tragedy. We're moving to make prevention our priority and set new standards for workplace safety and health.
Standards And Guidance
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 to protect workers from acetylene hazards.
In September, we -
- issued a final rule updating the personal protective equipment consensus standards
- proposed aligning OSHA's standards with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Hazardous Chemicals
In October, we -
- revised our enforcement policies for fall protection during steel erection
- issued grain handling operators a reminder to follow all required safety measures to protect their workers
- posted a letter of interpretation requiring the use of high-visibility warning garments to protect construction workers in highway workzones
- published 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
- continuing work on a final rule for confined spaces in construction
Of particular interest to this audience: OSHA is committed to publishing a standard for Electric Power Generation, Transmission, and Distribution.
This standard, proposed in June 2005, would revise the construction and maintenance standards for electric power work, to ensure that they are consistent and up to date.
Among the electrical workers covered by these standards, more than 400 suffer injuries and nearly 75 die on the job every year. OSHA estimates that the proposed standard will prevent more than 100 injuries and nearly 20 worker deaths each year - in addition to any injuries and fatalities that can be avoided through full compliance with existing standards.
Last week (October 27), OSHA reopened the record on the proposal and held a hearing on the limited issue of minimum approach distances that workers must maintain from energized conductors. I know EEI was present and participated in the hearing. The record is still open for hearing participants to submit additional data and post-hearing comments. OSHA has been at this process for four years now, and we're moving to publish a new standard as soon as the current process permits.
Taking a longer view, this administration is going to look for ways to fix fundamental problems in the way we create standards and the way we enforce them. Some standards have taken more than a decade to establish, and that's not an acceptable, timely response when we determine that workers are in immediate danger.
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 have to address the question of musculoskeletal injuries, which we all recognize is not only the most serious workplace safety and health problem facing American workers, but also the biggest political issue that this agency will have to face in this administration.
As we move forward on deciding how to approach this and other challenges, we're going to need allies with spines and spirit, not only in the labor community but also in the environmental movement, and among scientists and sociologists.
We'll also need allies in the progressive business community who, instead of instantly rejecting every new OSHA initiative, will work constructively with America's labor unions and declare "Yes we can" - because we know that working together, in the workplace and in Washington, D.C., is the best way to achieve what we all want: safe workplaces for all our Nation's workers.
Training And Education
Because safe jobs are OSHA's priority, OSHA advocates more and better training. Providing workers and employers with the knowledge they need to ensure safe working conditions is the best way to prevent workplace tragedies. Because EEI and the electric power industry take great pride in promoting worker training, I know you are with me on this strategy.
In September, 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.
A good example of this year's Harwood Grant projects is a $270,000 award to the Georgia Tech Applied Research Corporation. Georgia Tech will develop electrical safety training for managers, maintenance workers and contractors. The materials will be developed in English with key concepts translated into Spanish.
Meanwhile, OSHA is continuing to strengthen the integrity of its Outreach Training Program by improving how trainers become authorized to teach and by 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.
One last word on outreach: As OSHA moves forward on enforcement and standards, we also going to look hard to find ways to reach workplaces with improved compliance assistance -not as a replacement for standards and enforcement, but as an enhancement. With this addition to standards and enforcement, we'll ensure that all workers and businesses, big and small, have the tools and knowledge they need to ensure safer workplaces.
I want to thank EEI once again for supporting worker safety and health with activities such as this contractor safety summit.
In recent years, some of the most complex industrial projects in our Nation have been completed with great success - with no worker injuries - because management and workers have worked together to identify and reduce exposure to workplace hazards.
The most successful projects feature agreements with everyone involved - including contractors and subcontractors right down the line - implementing and adhering to an effective Safety and HealthManagement System.
Now, a word of caution: During a recession, as businesses struggle to cut costs and maintain productivity with fewer workers, safety and health can be endangered.
When workers are asked to take on extra duties, put in longer hours, or work at a faster pace, they're exposed to increased stress and fatigue. They feel pressured to cut corners on safety and health procedures to get the job done. We also know that, during an economic downturn, often the first things to be cut or deferred are training and maintenance.
However, let's be very clear: Even in a recession, skimping on safety and health requirements is a shortcut to disaster.
I also want to remind everyone here: Know what to do about the flu. Every workplace needs to establish plans to protect their workers and their businesses against the spread of pandemic influenza.
OSHA's Web site offers downloadable guidance documents, QuickCards and other resources to help employers and workers develop a plan to sustain operations. I urge you to develop and test a workplace plan today.
Worker safety is no accident. Let's strive to prevent wasteful, costly and unnecessary injuries and illness through education, training and compliance at every worksite - so that every day, at the dining table in the home of every worker in your industry, healthy and safe workers are seated with their families. This is our aim: No more empty chairs.