Remarks Prepared For
Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor
For Occupational Safety and Health
ConnectiCOSH Annual Convention
Connecticut Council for Occupational Safety and Health
Friday, November 20, 2009
Thanks to Tim Morse and Nancy Simcox for inviting me to join you today. It's been about five years since I've addressed folks at a ConnectiCOSH convention, and it's good to be back here to talk about big changes going on in OSHA.
I want to acknowledge the occupational safety and health professionals here today. You strive to make sure that your fellow workers go home safe and sound at the end of every workday; and while you don't always get credit for doing your job - when no one gets hurt - you are America's quiet heroes and you deserve our thanks.
Struggle For Progress
I also want to say how good it is to be among my Labor brothers and sisters, who fight every day to keep everyone safe and healthy on the job. Progress has not come easy for workers in this country. Improvements in safety conditions in our Nation did not come because a politician thought they would be a good idea, or some scientist decided that a chemical was too dangerous.
Every incremental improvement in working conditions has been earned with the blood and broken bones of working people, as a result of the battles fought - some won and some lost - in thousands of workplaces and union halls across the country. Too many of those advances came too late, only after we counted the bodies destroyed by workplace hazards that could have been prevented.
As angry as I get about the all-too-slow struggle for something as basic as protecting workers, I'm filled with hope when I see the dedicated worker and health and safety professionals in this room.
I didn't come back to OSHA just to make the agency better, I came back to ensure that American workplaces are safer and fewer workers are injured and killed in the workplace. A strong and effective OSHA is one means to that end; another, equally important means is a strong and knowledgeable labor movement, and that's a large part of the reason that you're here at this conference.
Today I want to ask you to redouble your commitment. With your help, we've elected a great president, Barack Obama, who appointed a great Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis - a woman whose parents are proud union members, a woman who understands workplace health, a former Congresswoman with constituents who suffered from popcorn lung. She understands the hopes and dreams of workers, she understands the struggles they face every day on the job, and she understands that they have a right to a safe workplace.
I was only on board at OSHA a week or two last spring when I accompanied Secretary Solis on Workers Memorial Day to the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland. At this event, she pledged to honor the memories of fallen workers everywhere. If any of you were there, you heard her announce that OSHA is back in the enforcement business and back in the standard-setting business.
Let's remember that there are great benefits to working together with management on health and safety issues. Working together - not just on paper, but also through joint health and safety committees, joint incident investigations, partnering full-time union and management health and safety representatives, and providing training: This is how we anticipate hazards, share solutions, and prevent tragedies.
In my experience, joint programs are the most successful way to achieve safe and healthful workplaces; however, it's also true that this approach is the most difficult to achieve. On one side, it takes a strong union that's knowledgeable about health and safety issues; on the other side, successful joint programs need managers who see the worth of safe workplaces and are willing to work with their unions to prevent workers from getting hurt.
Unfortunately, it often takes a workplace tragedy, high workers' compensation costs or a high OSHA penalty to get certain managers to see the light.
Yet, there's one item that we find in every workplace success story: a comprehensive Safety and Health Program in which management and workers are committed and equal partners in workplace safety and health.
I know it's not always easy to get to this point. From my own experience of running AFSCME's health and safety program for 16 years, and the stories I've heard from unions, the kind of cooperation we need to see in every workplace often follows a workplace tragedy and/or a significant OSHA fine. But if important lessons are learned, if progress is made, if future fatalities and catastrophes are prevented, then the original tragedies will not have been in vain.
However, in this modern era of workplace safety and health, we need to change our thinking in one critical way: We need to focus on problems before they can cause harm. We need to move from reaction to prevention.
This focus on prevention is very much on the mind of the new leadership in the Department of Labor and in OSHA as we take note that more than 5,000 people continue to die on the job in America every year. We must do more to reverse this deadly toll.
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.
Secretary Solis asked me to fill in as head of OSHA until we have a confirmed Assistant Secretary who will carry this fight forward. It was an honor to say to her "Yes, I will," and I'm here to tell you that it's a new day at the Department of Labor.
On this day, workers will have a voice and their unions will have a seat at the table because this administration understands that it's the workers who know how to make workplaces safe.
On this day, employers will no longer get away with blaming workers who get hurt on the job. The law says employers are responsible for workplace safety and health, and there's a new sheriff in town to enforce that law.
And on this day, business owners can no longer excuse themselves from training their workers or providing protective equipment or safe working conditions by complaining that it takes too long or costs too much.
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 more inspectors, whistleblower investigators, and standards developers.
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.
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.
As an example of OSHA's renewed emphasis on enforcement, last month 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 has 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. We issue fines to get the message across that workplace safety is more than a slogan. It's the law, and the U.S. Department of Labor and OSHA will not tolerate the preventable exposure of workers to hazardous conditions.
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.
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.
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
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 - and we'll hold stakeholder meetings on Dec. 14.
Last week, we issued a 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
Training And Education
Because safe jobs are OSHA's priority, we advocate more and better training. Because ConnectiCOSH 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 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, including training for workers and for OSHA inspectors, fact sheets, guidance documents, and the states' On-site Consultation Program.
Compliance assistance is not a replacement for standards and enforcement, but it's a critical support that provides workers and businesses with the tools and knowledge they need to create safer workplaces.
OSHA particularly wants 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.
It's no secret to anyone here that more fatalities occur in construction than in 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.
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 that 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.
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. 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.
Connecticut Failures And Victories
I'm pleased to see Federal OSHA personnel here from our Hartford and Bridgeport area offices, along with officials from Connecticut OSHA. They tell me that, overall, most businesses here in the Constitution State understand the value of making workplace safety and health an integral part of daily business operations. That's good news.
The good working relationship between OSHA and most Connecticut businesses suggests that we're carrying forward lessons learned from the tragedy of the L'Ambiance Plaza collapse 22 years ago in Bridgeport.
Yet, in just the last few weeks, we've seen more tragedy...
Fernando Fernandez, a 47-year-old worker in New Haven, suffered a broken pelvis, a punctured lung, and other injuries on October 30 when an enormous rebar fell and pinned him while working on the new Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge.
I understand that Mr. Fernandez survived his injuries, which, sadly, can't be said for Freddie Vasquez, 22 years old, who died of blunt trauma from a falling steal beam at a home building site in Farmington on November
My sympathies go out to their families and co-workers, and I know that delivering this kind of news to the spouse of an injured or killed worker is about the hardest thing any employer has to face.
So, this conference, with its focus on workplace safety and health, is the place where we can pledge to do everything in our power to prevent any more injuries, illnesses and deaths on the job.
I was pleased to learn from federal OSHA's Hartford and Bridgeport area directors Bill Freeman and Bob Kowalski that our offices meet several times a year with officials in Connecticut's State OSHA plan - led by Ken Tucker and Jim Pierce. This kind of cooperative relationship between the federal and state plan people ensures consistent delivery of OSHA services and enforcement, as well as a coordinated response if and when a workplace tragedy strikes.
But along with the failings, let's also celebrate the workplace victories in Connecticut, including a number of successful partnerships that OSHA has forged with business to protect workers:
For example there's the recently (Jan. 2009) completed 2-year partnership with United Illuminating and Black and Veatch project to construct the Middletown-to-Norwalk power substation, a project that involved extensive and potentially dangerous underground work.
There's also the new, completed, 14-story Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale University that opened just last month - a 5-year, $467 million project built by Turner Construction.
In both these recent OSHA Partnership projects, not a single worker's life was lost.
Next door in Hartford, two other OSHA Partnership projects have reached the halfway point - the Whiting-Turner Front Street District Project to revitalize downtown Hartford, and Turner Construction's 10-story expansion of St. Francis Hospital. To date, we have very good news on these projects: No fatalities.
Now I want to turn to a concern of national and international scope.
A worldwide outbreak of a severe strain of influenza could disrupt our economy and our society for weeks and quite possibly many months. To minimize the impact of a pandemic, employers and workers must come together and develop, test and implement a comprehensive plan to protect themselves and sustain their business operations.
On OSHA's Pandemic Flu Web page we have posted many resources - all free to download - to help worksites prepare. I also encourage you, of course, to visit the Connecticut OSHA Website for guidance.
OSHA is preparing to issue to our inspectors a compliance directive to ensure uniform procedures when inspecting high and very high-risk occupational exposures to the H1N1, such as in healthcare facilities.
You may be aware that earlier this month Chairman Miller and Congresswoman Woolsey introduced H.R. 3991, the Emergency Influenza Containment Act. When applied to employers with 15 or more employees, H.R. 3991 would require employers who direct employees to stay home from work due to symptoms of a contagious illness - such as the H1N1 flu - to provide up to five days of paid sick leave. Employers that currently offer at least five days of paid sick leave would be exempt.
Like you, OSHA and DOL will be following the bill's progress.
Today I've described the efforts of federal OSHA under the new administration to refocus its energies and resources on standards and enforcement, and in the short term to move ahead on numerous proposed standards listed on the regulatory agenda.
Taking a longer view, this administration is going to look for ways to fix fundamental problems in how 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.
Yet, I believe that responsible employers are looking for direction on what to do about ergonomic issues that, unheeded and uncorrected, cost them millions of dollars in crippling worker injuries and illnesses every year. I can't imagine how American businesses can 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 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.
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.
I want to encourage you all to stay involved with rulemaking on the state or federal level. Participate in the public hearings and comment periods, let us know when we're doing a good job, make recommendations for improving things, and let us know when we can do better.
I'll leave you with this final thought:
Soon after I arrived at OSHA earlier this year, 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. 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 photos are a daily reminder of what we're seeking to prevent and what we're working to achieve.