Remarks Prepared For Delivery By
Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor
For Occupational Safety and Health
Building Trades Employers' Association
2009 BTEA Safety Conference
New York City, NY
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Thanks to Lou Coletti (BTEA President and CEO) and Gary LaBarbera (president, Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, AFL-CIO) for inviting me to join you today.
Congratulations on arranging this conference annually and making construction worker safety a priority.
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 and New York.
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 created 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.
Last week (Nov. 18), David's appointment was approved in committee; the next step is confirmation by the full Senate.
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. 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, and under this Administration we're acting like one.
As an example of OSHA's renewed emphasis on enforcement, we're establishing a Severe Violator Enforcement Program. Under this initiative, we 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.
OSHA will enforce our standards uniformly on all construction sites, providing a fair and level playing field for everyone in the industry, and OSHA will bring the full force of its citations and penalties to contractor who violates the law.
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.
More recently, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is giving a big boost in infrastructure projects around the country such as highway, transit and energy construction. The federal stimulus funds have also, necessarily, prompted an increase in OSHA inspections to make sure everyone is following the rules and working safely.
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.
With a renewed emphasis on enforcement, look for more - and bigger - citations to make sure that employers follow the rules and take worker protection seriously. Until now, the average OSHA penalty for a serious violation has been less than $1,000 - a figure so small that I don't think it would deter anyone from cutting corners on workplace safety.
On October 30, we issued $87.4 million in proposed penalties to BP - the largest in OSHA's history. We took this action when we determined that BP failed to correct potential hazards at its refinery in Texas City- hazards that continue to threaten workers' health and safety four years after safety violations at this worksite resulted in a massive explosion, killing killed 15 workers and injuring 170 others.
I know that you understand OSHA's position. We're moving toward tougher citations and penalties not simply to punish, but to provide a powerful incentive for employers to respect their workers, integrate protection into business operations, and make prevention a priority.
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 trend, OSHA, along with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and other agencies, is sponsoring a Hispanic workers summit in Texas in April 2010. 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.
New York City Initiatives
Federal OSHA, New York State PESH (New York State's Public Employer Safety and Health Program), and local authorities here are all committed to working together to put the brakes on worker deaths in New York City.
It's been a tough couple of years for New York construction workers, with a depressed economy on the one hand making jobs hard to come by; and on the other hand, numerous worker deaths resulting from collapsed cranes and scaffolds.
These workplace tragedies prompted OSHA, the New York City Department of Buildings and the Office of the Mayor to engage in unprecedented interagency cooperation.
OSHA also reached out to other stakeholders, including unions and management associations here and in New Jersey, to underscore our common goals, minimize friction, and maximize productive, life-saving efforts.
Federal OSHA's Region II Office also responded with two construction inspection task forces initiatives launched in July and November 2008, resulting in a total of 200 inspections.
Earlier today, Rich Mendelson, Federal OSHA's Deputy Administrator for Region II, discussed the many other initiatives that OSHA and stakeholders pursued here in New York City, including —
- enhanced oversight of crane and rigging standards
- new concrete safety manager rules
- new construction, demolition and abatement (CDA) rules that ensure cooperation with OSHA, EPA, and the city's building and fire departments.
National Construction Report Card
I know that earlier today you heard OSHA's "construction report card" for the Greater New York City area.
From the national perspective, the 2008 numbers are clear: Falls and electrocution are the leading causes of construction fatalities. In fact, falls cause one in every three worker deaths in construction, so if we can rein in this one cause of death, we can save the lives of more than 300 construction workers every year.
Fall protection seems so basic - enforcing the rules for railings, covering or barricading floor openings, using the right personal protective equipment, and all the rest - but the basics are essential and clearly vital to construction worker safety.
The same goes for electrical shock: Encouraging everyone on the job - not just electrical workers - to respect the rules, stay clear of power sources, avoid deadly shortcuts, and use their PPE: Taking these steps will significantly help save lives.
And because we know the leading causes of death on the job, they'll be a major focus in OSHA inspections to ensure that standards are enforced.
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 values state plans. Many have shown that they have the flexibility to address 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.
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.
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 worker exposure numerous on-the-job hazards.
In September, we issued a final rule updating the personal protective equipment consensus standards
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
- Earlier this month, we issued a direct final rule to protect workers from acetylene hazards.
In the coming months, OSHA will:
- continue working on a final rule for confined spaces in construction
- publish a standard for electric power generation, transmission, and distribution
Most important, we are preparing the final rule in the new cranes and derricks rulemaking. We plan to issue this new standard in July 2010.
I'm aware that New York City wants to continue to enforce its municipal crane safety requirements. We understand the City's concerns, and we're keeping those concerns in mind as we move forward on the final rule.
Training And Education
Because safe jobs are OSHA's priority, OSHA advocates more and better training. As everyone here knows, providing workers and employers with the knowledge they need to ensure safe working conditions is the best way to prevent workplace tragedies.
This is why, in September, OSHA awarded more than $6.8 million in Susan Harwood Training Grants to 30 recipients, including labor unions and employer associations. The training grants provide two years of support for the recipients' activities on behalf of our Nation's workforce. By early spring we expect to announce the availability of funding for the FY 2010 round of Harwood grants.
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.
We also want to begin a dialogue on how to reach small contractors who shop at home improvement stores. We'd like to leverage support from these stores and share a strong safety message through posters and QuickCards, and establish a high 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.
Earlier this year, OSHA asked its Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH) to advise us on the impact of federal stimulus funds on construction worker safety and health.
At the invitation of the committee, businesses and organizations have made presentations on worker hazards associated with wind energy construction and green building, as well as ongoing concerns in roadway construction safety. At the advisory committee's upcoming December meeting, a company will present information about electrical power distribution, transmission, and smart-grid hazards.
OSHA will look carefully at any advisory committee recommendations to update existing standards, consider new rulemaking, or offer guidance that can help protect construction workers.
Also, because prevention is a priority with OSHA, we are strongly advocating the concept of Prevention through Design. In fact, this is a major topic of interest to our advisory committee. Building into architectural designs strategic worker safety features, such as parapets and reinforced skylight framing that improve fall protection, can save the lives of thousands of construction and maintenance workers. We're looking for more ideas on this subject and ways to promote them.
Along the same lines, I want to congratulate BTEA and BCTC for exploring new safety technologies and approaches to construction - such as the Cocoon Netting Systems that's being presented here today.
Taking a longer view, OSHA will look for ways to streamline the cumbersome, lengthy rulemaking process. Some standards have taken more than a decade to establish, and that's not an acceptable, timely response when we find workers are in danger.
As we move forward on these and other workplace safety and health 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.
New Approaches Needed for a New Century
In closing, I commend the BTEA for its leadership on health and safety and for its commitment to strong labor-management cooperation. Your Construction Industry Partnership is a model that works and serves to improve the lives of the working men and women of New York City.
OSHA looks forward to working with you as we have so effectively in the past. Our Regional Administrator Bob Kulick speaks highly of the relationship forged here in New York. I appreciate your support.
As we move forward this year to tackle the difficult issues I've outlined today, we'll need your ideas, innovations, commitment and willingness to help us develop better construction safety and health in our Nation.
Along with new, 21st century technologies and new methods of building, it's time to apply new-century thinking to worker protection.