Remarks Prepared For
Acting Assistant Secretary
For Occupational Safety and Health
Ironworkers Management Progressive Action Cooperative Trust (IMPACT)
Safety And Health Roundtable Meeting
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Thanks to Steve Rank (IMPACT Director of Western Region) for his invitation to meet with you today.
Thanks, also, to the leadership of IMPACT's co-chairs, representing management and labor, and for IMPACT's commitment to making worker safety and health a priority.
We all agree that preventable worker injuries, illnesses and deaths are expensive, disruptive, wasteful...and completely unnecessary.
It's important for groups like IMPACT to spread the word about the great benefits that come from management and labor working together 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.
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. In fact, in 20th century America, most improvements in workplace safety were hard earned through tragedies that led to 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 and tens of thousands more die of workplace disease in America every year.
As you may have heard by now, Dr. David Michaels was confirmed by the United States Senate last week as Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA.
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.
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. Even at OSHA, we need to remind ourselves at every opportunity why we're here and the important work we do.
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.
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 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.
- We fined Tempel Grain Elevators of Wiley, Colo., more than $1.6 million following the death of a teen worker at a grain storage site.
- We've proposed more than half a million dollars in fines against Cranesville Aggregate for significant hazards at its cement and asphalt bagging plant in Scotia, N.Y.
- OSHA also recently fined Loren Cook Company more than half a million dollars for alleged willful and serious violations after a worker was killed by an ejected machine part.
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.
We need to send the message that even in times of great economic hardship, we will not tolerate cutting corners on safety. Worker safety cannot be secondary to a healthy bottom line. It must always be a priority.
As another 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 any contractor who violates the law.
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 staff and inspections to make sure everyone who receives federal funding is following the rules and working safely.
Under this administration, OSHA will react swiftly to troubling trends. For example, responding to a spike in construction fatalities in Texas earlier this year, 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.
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.
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.
National Construction Report Card
From a national perspective, the 2008 numbers are clear: Falls, struck by, caught in-between, and electrocution are the leading causes of construction fatalities. In fact, falls cause one in every three worker deaths in construction. 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 lines, avoid deadly shortcuts, and use their PPE... will go a long way to saving 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, allocate its resources, and measure the effect of this agency's actions on workplace safety. Employers and workers need accurate data to ensure that workplace hazards are identified and addressed. 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 not tolerate underreporting - especially intentional underreporting of injuries and illnesses. We will aggressively enforce OSHA's 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 numerous on-the-job hazards.
In recent months we have -
- Sent out our silica risk assessment for peer review
- issued a final rule updating personal protective equipment
- revised our enforcement policies for fall protection during steel erection
- posted a letter of interpretation requiring high-visibility warning garments to protect construction workers in highway work zones
- 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
We are also preparing the final rule in the new cranes and derricks rulemaking. We plan to issue this new standard in July 2010.
Training and Education
Because safe jobs are OSHA's priority, OSHA advocates more and better training and compliance assistance. 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 trade 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 - 10 and 30 hour courses - 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.
We are also monitoring the quality of classes under this training program to ensure that basic information is presented on worker rights and how to use OSHA's resources.
Finally, as more and more states and cities make the 10-hour course mandatory, we will remind them that these courses are not a panacea to all workplace safety problems. As valuable as they are as general awareness courses, they satisfy no OSHA requirements.
OSHA will also find ways to reach workplaces with improved compliance assistance. Compliance assistance is not a replacement for standards and enforcement, but it is a critical support that provides workers and businesses with the tools and knowledge they need to create safer workplaces.
Questions are always raised about the future of OSHA's cooperative programs, particularly its VPP and Alliance programs. 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 within our mix of tools for accomplishing OSHA's mission, particularly in light of the fact that 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.
As we look to the future of OSHA's cooperative programs, we also know that one of our major priorities - especially with our Alliances and Strategic Partnerships - must include active participation by all parties: labor AND management AND government
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.
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.
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 and possibly billions 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.
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.
I commend IMPACT and its members for strongly promoting health and safety in the workplace through cooperation between management and organized labor. OSHA looks forward to working with you as we have so effectively in the past.
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.