Remarks Prepared For
Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor
For Occupational Safety and Health
American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Caucus
National Press Club, Washington, D.C.
Friday, December 4, 2009
Thanks to Scott Cooper (ANSI VP Policy and Government Relations) for his invitation.
Thanks to Joe Bhatia (ANSI President & CEO) and Frances Schrotter (ANSI Senior Vice President & COO) for their leadership.
I'm pleased to have this opportunity to give you an inside look at OSHA's goals, priorities and recent activities.
We all agree that preventable worker injuries, illness and deaths are expensive, disruptive, wasteful...and completely unnecessary.
It is with great pleasure that I am finally able to announce that Dr. David Michaels was confirmed by the United States Senate last night as Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA. He will be sworn in early next week.
David is a distinguished scientist at George Washington University, and a friend of mine. He has not only an impressive academic record, but also has led the worker health and safety program at the Department of Energy. We're all looking forward to welcoming him to OSHA.
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.
In the 20th century, improvements in workplace safety in our Nation were hard earned, mostly through tragedies that led to the enactment of reforms after workers 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. First and foremost, 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.
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. Up till 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.
BP is just one of several recent, significant cases where OSHA has cited companies for egregious violations of workplace safety and health standards. In the last two weeks, OSHA proposed more than $3.4 million in penalties to five worksites for violating OSHA standards - and two of these cases involved workers killed on the job.
In fact, in the last two months, OSHA has addressed more egregious cases and issued higher fines than in the previous fiscal year. This reflects Labor Secretary Hilda Solis' commitment to refocus OSHA's priorities on writing and enforcing standards to protect workers.
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 forOccupational 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.
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 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.
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
- 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 be holding stakeholder meetings on Dec. 14
In November, 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.
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.
OSHA has a responsibility to ensure that the more than nine million frontline health care workers in the United States are protected to the extent possible against exposure to the virus. This is why, on Nov. 20, we issued 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.
In response to complaints, OSHA inspectors will ensure that health care employers implement a hierarchy of controls, and encourage vaccination and other work practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Where respirators are required, OSHA's Respiratory Protection standard must be followed, including worker training and fit testing. The directive also applies to institutional settings where some workers may have similar exposures, such as schools and correctional facilities.
You may be aware that [U.S. House Education and Labor Committee] Chairman Miller and Congresswoman Woolsey have 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.
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.
One of the reasons OSHA has been reworking its priorities is because we know that the government's budget isn't infinite. The hard reality is this: In the coming years, we anticipate some belt-tightening and serious resource issues in the Agency.
A 2004 Government Accountability Office report asked OSHA to evaluate the effectiveness of our cooperative programs and, particularly, our Voluntary Protection Programs. As a result, we're making changes to the way OSHA is managing these programs to ensure that we can preserve what's best about them given a limited budget in the future.
We've also been examining where these programs fit in our mix of tools for accomplishing OSHA's mission. One priority, especially with our Alliances and Strategic Partnerships, is including active participation by all parties - labor AND management AND government.
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.
Before I leave here today, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a 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.