Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor
For Occupational Safety and Health
Voluntary Protection Programs Participants' Association
National Board of Directors meeting
DOL Frances Perkins Building, Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Thanks to Davis Layne for inviting me to your meeting this morning. I'm pleased to continue to keep in touch with the Board and its participating members.
I also want to acknowledge the leadership of Dave Jackson and Cindy Mahoney, and the dedication of the other members of this Board.
With VPPPA, I know I'm in the best company - the true believers and the enlightened corporate managers and safety specialists who "get it" when we talk about protecting the lives of our working men and women across America.
I saw many of you at your national conference in San Antonio in August, as well as earlier in the year when I met with some of you to discuss the priorities of the new administration here in Washington, D.C. In light of refocused priorities under this new administration, I know that VPP participants and this organization have been concerned about the future of VPP, so I was grateful for the warm reception I received in San Antonio.
Praise for VPP and VPPPA
I want to restate what I said in San Antonio: We're all aware that VPP is facing a number of challenges. I gladly accepted your invitation to speak to you today so that we can keep our lines of communication open and, together, chart a course that can preserve the best of VPP while addressing the challenges.
I also want to underscore my admiration for the companies and agencies in VPP that exemplify workplace excellence through management leadership and worker participation. I've been extremely impressed with their dedication to workplace safety, with the way management and workers at VPP sites have implemented health and safety programs, and with the obvious pride that they show in their health and safety achievements.
I particularly appreciate the invaluable service of Special Government Employees.
By not only meeting but exceeding OSHA's standards, VPP participants are saving workers' lives and setting the pace for everyone else in their industries. For these superior efforts, OSHA is committed to ensuring that these worksites will continue to receive recognition.
Renewed Focus on Standards and Enforcement
That said, we must also face facts: Workers are getting sick, suffering serious injuries, and getting killed every day on the job across our Nation. This is happening because certain employers are not living up to their legal and moral responsibility to provide safe workplaces.
OSHA was established 38 years ago with a clear mission as a federal agency to assure the safety of our Nation's workforce. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and I and this administration are committed to ensuring that OSHA adheres to its original intent under the OSH Act by putting more emphasis and more resources into creating and enforcing standards that protect our working men and women.
The President has asked for a significant increase in OSHA's budget for FY 2010, and almost all of that increase will be dedicated to restoring our enforcement and standard-setting capacity to FY 2001 levels.
Now, because this country is in a difficult economic situation, budget planning has profoundly challenged our government. Certainly in the coming years we cannot look forward to significant funding increases; the "pie" in the budget chart is not going to get bigger.
As we consider how to meet OSHA's new goals and priorities, we'll need to make difficult priority choices. We'll need your help to identify what is best about VPP and how to maintain and improve on those features within a limited budget.
Challenges and Changes for VPP
We're all aware of the two Government Accountability Office reports related to VPP. In 2004, the GAO issued a report calling on OSHA to evaluate the effectiveness of our cooperative programs before expanding them significantly; yet, while the programs grew, the evaluation was never done. The GAO report issued on May 20, 2009, found serious problems in OSHA's oversight of the programs and inconsistency between OSHA regions.
To address GAO's recommendations for improving the programs, OSHA is putting together an action plan for both the national and field offices. The VPPPA Board is aware of GAO's concerns and some of the proposed solutions, and I want you to know that I will be interested in hearing your reaction to these changes.
Beyond specific improvements to VPP, OSHA is looking at the bigger picture. With the involvement and support of our stakeholders, we will consider how our cooperative programs should fit into OSHA's overall goals and budget. Our aim is to strike a balance with cooperative programs and our current emphasis on standards and enforcement.
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 Senate.
Meanwhile, OSHA is moving forward with an aggressive agenda. When Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis asked me last spring to lead OSHA until an Assistant Secretary could be confirmed, she made it clear that she was not looking for a caretaker; she wanted someone who would step in and get things moving. I immediately set out to re-activate the many standards that had stalled in the development and rulemaking process, and to shore up enforcement of existing safety and health standards.
Two major events in the last month exemplify OSHA's renewed focus on enforcement of safety and health standards:
- my testimony before the House Education and Labor Committee (Oct. 29) on increased federal oversight of State OSHA plans
- OSHA's decision (Oct. 30) to issue $87.4 million in proposed penalties to BP for failing to correct potential hazards that continue to threaten workers' health and safety at its refinery in Texas City, Texas.
State Plan Oversight
Let's look at what these two events mean to OSHA and to you...
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.
To immediately improve our oversight of state plans, I instructed OSHA's regional administrators to use the monitoring tools available to them, and I encouraged them to investigate potential problems more extensively.
In addition, OSHA will conduct formal studies of every state that administers its own program. 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, and 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 on Capitol Hill last month, 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.
The other significant recent event for OSHA came last month, when we issued the largest proposed penalty in the Agency's history.
Four long years after lax safety conditions at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, resulted in a massive explosion, killing 15 workers and injuring 170 others - OSHA determined that the company failed to correct hazards that continue to threaten workers' health and safety.
On October 30, OSHA issued $87.4 million in proposed penalties to BP.
When BP signed the OSHA settlement from the March 2005 explosion, it agreed to take comprehensive action to protect employees. Instead of living up to that commitment, BP allowed hundreds of potential hazards to continue unabated.
An $87 million fine won't restore the lives of the workers killed on the job, but we can't let this happen again. OSHA issues fines to get the message across that workplace safety is more than a slogan. It's the law, and we will not tolerate the preventable exposure of workers to hazardous conditions.
As I have explained on many occasions to you and to others over the last few months, I wish that every employer would strive for the level of excellence that we find in VPP participants. Certainly my job would be a whole lot easier.
The fact is, about 5,000 workers still die every year across America and more than a million workers suffer serious and sometimes permanent injury or severe illness — because some employers continue to ignore their responsibility to protect their workers.
Under this administration, those employers are going to find that OSHA will move swiftly and aggressively against the worst offenders. For those employers in the highest risk areas who continue to gamble with their workers' lives, we're increasing the number of inspections and working to make our citations stick.
I know that you understand OSHA's position. We're 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 and prevention part of their daily operations.
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 scrutinize incentive programs that discourage workers from reporting injuries and illnesses. These include programs that discipline workers who are injured or safety competitions that penalize workers when someone reports an injury or illness.
Let me be absolutely clear: It's one thing to reward workers for doing their jobs safely, but OSHA will not tolerate programs that discourage workers and managers from reporting injuries and illnesses.
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 work zones
- published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to protect workers from combustible dust explosions
In the coming months, OSHA will -
- publish a cranes and derricks standard
- continue working on a final rule for confined spaces in construction
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 VPP participants 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.
Meanwhile, OSHA continues 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.
As OSHA moves forward on enforcement and standards, we're also going to find ways to reach workplaces with improved compliance assistance. Make no mistake: Compliance assistance is not a replacement for standards and enforcement, but it is a valuable enhancement that provides workers and employers with the tools and knowledge they need to create safer workplaces.
While on the subject of outreach: It's no secret that half the workplace fatalities each year occur in construction jobs, and that half the workers killed in construction are Hispanic. 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. As details take shape for this important summit, I hope that VPPPA will help promote this event and participate.
Taking a longer view, we are looking to fix fundamental problems in the way OSHA creates standards. Some standards have taken more than a decade to establish; that's not an acceptable, timely response when we determine that workers are in 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.
Again: I realize that VPP participants understand all this, but we also realize that thousands of other employers do not - and they and their workers are looking to OSHA for direction on what to do about ergonomic issues that, unheeded, cost employers millions of dollars in worker injuries and illnesses every year. American businesses and agencies simply cannot afford to ignore this problem, especially when there are known, sound, scientific solutions. What's missing is awareness and will.
As we move forward on deciding how to approach this and other workplace challenges, OSHA will 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 is the best way to achieve what we all want: safe workplaces for our Nation's workers.
I want to thank the members of this national board, the regional chapters, and all VPP participants for understanding why OSHA has changed its focus in President Obama's administration.
I'm grateful that you understand: OSHA must respond to concerns expressed by Congress and many others who have recommended changes in OSHA's management of the Voluntary Protection Programs.
I'm grateful, also, for the mutual benefits of the Special Government Employees. Please continue to promote this program among your membership.
Finally, today, I'm asking you to continue promoting and protecting the integrity of VPP by working with OSHA as we look for better ways to eliminate wasteful, tragic, and unnecessary injuries and illness in workplaces all across America.