Remarks Prepared For
Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor
For Occupational Safety and Health
Alliance Program Construction Roundtable
Joint Design for Safety and Fall Protection Workgroup Meeting
Thursday, November 19, 2009
I want to express my thanks to members of the roundtable for the time they contribute to this group, to their individual Alliances, and also to the construction industry.
I especially want to thank you for participating in the joint Design for Safety and Fall Protection Workgroup, where your hard work brings the real results.
Lee Anne Jillings and Bill Parsons have given you updates this morning on OSHA initiatives in their directorates, so I will take just a few minutes to mention other issues in the Agency that I know will interest you.
To lead OSHA under the new administration, President Barak Obama has nominated a distinguished scientist at George Washington University, David Michaels. 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.
As Secretary Solis has said, OSHA is back in the enforcement and standards-writing business.
As an example of OSHA's renewed emphasis on enforcement, we're establishing a Severe Violator Enforcement Program. This initiative will concentrate our attention and resources on employers who demonstrate indifference to their OSH Act obligations. 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 more inspectors, whistleblower investigators, and standards developers.
And under this administration, OSHA will react swiftly to troubling trends. For example, when it came to our attention that Texas led the Nation in construction workplace fatalities, we launched a construction safety sweep in July, bringing inspectors to Texas from across the country. Under this initiative, OSHA conducted more than 900 inspections throughout the state, resulting in more than 1,600 violations and fines totaling almost $2 million.
It's no secret to this roundtable that more fatalities occur in construction than any other industry, and that each year one-third of all Hispanics killed on the job in America work in construction. To address this deadly trend, OSHA, along with NIOSH and other agencies, is sponsoring a Hispanic workers summit this coming April in Texas. As details take shape for this important summit, I hope you will help promote this event and participate by sharing your ideas as part of the solution to this national problem.
More recently, 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.
With more inspections, look for more - and bigger - citations. OSHA is looking at ways to strengthen its penalty program as a powerful incentive for employers to respect their workers and make protection and prevention 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.
OSHA will conduct formal studies of every state that administers its own program, like our recent evaluation of Nevada OSHA. 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.
Accurate Records, Good Incentives
OSHA is also concerned about accuracy in reporting workplace injuries and illnesses.
The GAO report on injury and illness recordkeeping, released November 16, contained a number of troubling findings, including evidence that OSHA's current audit process needs improvement.
The report also found that certain incentive and discipline programs can discourage workers from reporting injuries and illnesses and, most alarmingly, that a high percentage of health care providers have been pressured to adjust treatment or take other steps to avoid reporting injuries and illnesses.
Most of this information had been reported in studies and Congressional hearings, which prompted us on October 1 to initiate a major Recordkeeping National Emphasis Program to ensure that injuries and illnesses are accurately reported. This NEP will also put a special focus on identifying programs that may discourage workers from reporting.
OSHA needs accurate data to effectively target its inspections and other resources, and to measure the effect of this agency's actions on workplace safety. For these reasons, Secretary Solis and I welcomed the findings of the GAO report and assured the GAO that we will comply with the report's recommendations.
OSHA will aggressively enforce its recordkeeping requirements and increase our efforts to ensure that employers and workers understand how important accurate data is to workplace safety and health.
With a renewed emphasis on standards and enforcement, it's logical for you to ask, "Where does this put OSHA's cooperative programs?"
One of the first things I did this spring after arriving 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 do a lot of good.
We recognize that there are great companies and associations, like yours, who go beyond OSHA's basic requirements to make their workplaces safe - we wish everyone followed this 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.
With OSHA back in the standards writing business and back in the enforcement business, we're no longer reacting to tragedy, but making prevention our priority. That's why OSHA is very interested in advancing the concept of Prevention through Design. We're looking for more ideas on this subject from you and ways to promote them.
Standards and Guidance
OSHA has accelerated its efforts to develop long-awaited standards addressing hazardous exposure to silica, beryllium, and food flavorings containing diacetyl.
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
Of particular interest to this roundtable, in October, we -
- revised our enforcement policies for fall protection during steel erection
- posted a letter of interpretation requiring the use of high-visibility warning garments to protect construction workers in highway work zones
Last month, we also -
- issued grain handling operators a reminder to follow all required safety measures to protect their workers
- published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to protect workers from combustible dust explosions. We will be holding stakeholder meetings on Dec. 14.
Last week, we issued a direct final rule to protect workers from acetylene hazards.
In the coming months, OSHA will:
- publish a cranes and derricks standard
- continue working on a final rule for confined spaces in construction
- publish a standard for electric power generation, transmission, and distribution
Taking a longer view, this administration is going to look for ways to fix fundamental problems in the way we create standards. Some standards have taken more than a decade to establish, and that's not an acceptable, timely response.
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.
Fortunately, the Strains, Sprains and Material Handling Subgroup is already responding to this challenge with new products - a slide presentation, a toolbox talk, and safety tip sheets. I applaud you for this and look forward to seeing the final products.
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 this roundtable takes 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 unions, employer associations, 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. Compliance assistance is not a replacement for standards and enforcement, but is a critical support that provides workers and businesses, big and small, with the tools and knowledge they need to create safer workplaces.
To help us accomplish this, we want to hear your ideas on how we can reach out to hard-to-reach workers such as those with low literacy and no access to computers.
We also want to begin a dialogue on how to reach small contractors who shop at home improvement stores. With your help, we can leverage support from these stores to share a strong safety message through posters and QuickCards, and with an OSHA presence in their in-store, how-to workshops.
We realized that in these big stores, there are no posted reminders in the lumber or tool areas about the importance of workplace safety. This one change alone could save a lot of lives and generally raise awareness of safety on the job.
I want to thank the joint Design for Safety and Fall Protection Workgroup for your progress on helping to develop and provide safety and health information to employers and workers in construction. I encourage you to continue developing more of these resources and in different languages, especially Spanish. You know your industry better than anyone, and I expect the best ideas from you.
I also want to remind everyone here: Every workplace needs to establish plans to protect their workers and businesses against the spread of pandemic influenza. OSHA's Web site offers downloadable guidance documents, QuickCards and other resources to teach employers and workers about the importance of basic hygiene and planning for high absenteeism.
In the weeks and months ahead, as OSHA moves forward with proposed rulemaking, I urge your participation. Please take part in regulatory hearings, send us your thoughts during the comment periods, voice your concerns, and share your experience and expertise. I especially encourage you to participate in the Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health meeting December 8-11 here in Washington.
Construction work can be dangerous, but it doesn't have to be deadly. When we find the right ways to eliminate the high number of fatalities and injuries in construction, it will be a huge gift to the industry and a huge victory for the nation.
What you strive to accomplish at these meetings is important, and I value what you contribute.