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• Information Date: 09/25/2009
• Presented To: Wisconsin State AFL-CIO Health and Safety Conference Day
• Speaker: Jordan Barab


Remarks As Prepared For JORDAN BARAB
Acting Assistant Secretary For Occupational Safety and Health
U.S. Department of Labor

Wisconsin State AFL-CIO Health and Safety Conference Day
Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Friday, September 25, 2009

WISCONSIN STATE AFL-CIO SAFETY AND HEALTH DAY

It's a pleasure and an honor to be here in Wisconsin. Nearly 100 years ago, in 1911, Wisconsin distinguished itself as the first state in the Union to pass a workers' compensation law by progressive Governor Francis McGovern.

On a special, personal note, Wisconsin is where, in 1932, the Wisconsin State Employees Union formed what was to become AFSCME. This is where I spent 16 years building one of the best safety and health programs in the labor movement.

Now, it has been almost six months since Secretary Hilda Solis asked me to serve as Acting Assistant Secretary until a permanent Assistant Secretary is confirmed by the Senate.

President Barack Obama has nominated a distinguished scientist at George Washington University, David Michaels, who 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 was the father of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, which has provided billions of dollars to Cold War veterans who have contracted cancer and other diseases building this nation's nuclear arsenal.

I know David well. We've been friends for many years and I know that he will bring to OSHA a renowned insight into the role of science in the regulatory process.

OSHA isn't in a holding pattern while we await a new leader; there's too much to do and too many workers depending on us to make things right. When I accepted the opportunity to return to OSHA, Secretary Solis asked me to start moving forward right away to refocus the Agency on its original mission - to assure safe and healthful conditions for American workers by setting and enforcing strong, protective workplace standards.

As I will relate to you today, after just a few months we are well on the way to doing that. But first, I want to tell you how much it means to be in this room with you today, back among my labor brothers and sisters.

Modern unions put a high priority on offering their members the organizing tools, the training and the knowledge they need to prevent injuries and improve performance. This is an ongoing priority for the AFL-CIO - particularly here in Wisconsin under the leadership of David Newby. Thank you, David, for your efforts to protect workers statewide.

But, as we all know, the job isn't easy. Utility workers, transportation workers, health care workers, teachers, public employees - these are the people who keep our Nation running. None of these workers does what Hollywood would portray as glamorous, nor are most of them paid well, but every one is essential to the life we enjoy in America.

Also essential to our safety and health are the firefighters, police officers, nurses, air traffic controllers and pilots who put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe in the sky and on the ground.

So why does it seem too much to ask that all employers provide these essential workers with safe workplaces or the right to organize into unions without being harassed or fired? After almost 30 years in this field, I find it astonishing, aggravating and insulting that we are still fighting these battles for basic workers' rights in far too many workplaces across our Nation.

Progress has not come easy for workers in this country. Every incremental improvement in working conditions has been earned with blood and broken bones, in battles won and lost in thousands of workplaces and union halls across the country. Too many of those advances came too late, only after we counted the lives destroyed by workplace hazards that could and should have been prevented.

As angry as I get about the sometimes maddeningly slow struggle for something as basic as protecting workers, I'm filled with hope when I see the dedicated worker and health and safety activists 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.

Working Together

Let's remember the benefits of 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 for reps and their members: 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.

Let's consider one case here in Wisconsin: In response to a complaint alleging a variety of safety hazards at a processing plant operated by Milk Specialties in Whitehall, OSHA began an inspection last December 2008.

Inspectors found untrained employees entered confined spaces and performed maintenance and cleaning on powered equipment without protection. There were combustible dust hazards, lack of signs and lighting for exit routes, uninspected fire extinguishers, deficiencies in guarding floor and wall openings, and untrained and uncertified fork lift operators.

Milk Specialties had been inspected by OSHA 15 times since 1974, including four inspections in Wisconsin between 2006 and 2008, with citations resulting from many of the same safety and health hazards cited in the most recent inspection.

It's time to get serious. Our proposed penalties for 17 willful violations total more than $1 million. Bear in mind that OSHA defines a "willful citation" as one "committed with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for worker safety and health."

The hallmarks of unacceptable behavior are clear from this example. In stark contrast to this, there's one item that we see in every single workplace success story: a comprehensive Safety and Health Management System 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 move from reaction to prevention and focus on problems before they can cause harm.

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.

A Return to Strong Enforcement

Under this new administration, OSHA is heading back to the original intent of the OSH Act. We're back in the enforcement business and we're back in the standards-writing business.

One of the first things I did after walking through the door at OSHA was to tell our field staff that we were abolishing the quotas that the previous administration had set for racking up new members of the Voluntary Protection Program and Alliances. It's not that we shouldn't be recognizing those companies and associations who are going beyond the basic requirements to make workplaces safe - we should support the best of the best. However, OSHA's first priority must be those employers who continue to cut corners and put their workers' lives at risk.

One other thing I did when I first arrived was largely symbolic but nevertheless important. In OSHA's main conference room at the Department of Labor, one entire wall was filled with photos of OSHA staff managers - headquarters and field. As pleasant and good-looking as these people are, I had their pictures replaced with photos of workers who'd been killed on the job. The photos were lent to us by the husbands and wives, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers of workplace victims.

OSHA must never forget who we work for. We must never forget that every day in this country 15 workers are killed on the job. All of us at OSHA must never forget to ask ourselves every evening as we go home: "What have we done today to make workplaces safer?"

On a deeper level, to emphasize this agency's return to a focus on enforcement that pursues the worst violators, the agency has formed a task force to design a new enforcement initiative. The Severe Violator Enforcement Program is intended to concentrate resources on employers who have demonstrated indifference to their OSH Act obligations. Under this new program, any systemic problems that we identify with an employer's safety and health program will trigger additional, mandatory inspections to ensure compliance with workplace safety and health standards.

OSHA will react quickly to troubling trends. Take, for example, the recent "Texas Sweep." Texas has the unfortunate distinction of seeing more workplace fatalities than any other state. For that reason, we launched a construction safety sweep in Texas this summer, bringing in inspectors from across the country. Almost 300 construction inspections were conducted between July 12 and August 7. Inspectors identified numerous instances of workers exposed to fall hazards while working from elevated work surfaces or from scaffolds. Workers were removed from the hazard of cave-ins while working in unprotected trenches and excavations.

We expect the Texas program to be the first of many examples where a much more flexible and responsive OSHA will be able to respond to troubling trends that pop up around the country.

To support our efforts, President Obama has asked for the biggest increase in OSHA's budget in anyone's memory - over 10 percent. This increase of $50.6 million for the Agency would allow us to hire more than 200 new employees - including 130 more inspectors, 25 more discrimination investigators to pursue whistleblower complaints, and 20 more staff members who will help develop workplace standards for safety and health.

Let me repeat: If anyone here is looking for a job ensuring that workers are able to exercise their right to a safe workplace - we're hiring!

Across the country, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 - the "ARRA" - is prompting a big boost in infrastructure projects, such as highway, transit and energy construction. With this increase in construction activities, OSHA will step up its inspections to ensure that everyone is working safely.

On the federal level, OSHA is raising the number of worksite inspections to 40,000 a year - increasing our presence where we're needed most.

Also, within the limits of our existing authority, OSHA is looking at ways to strengthen our penalty program. OSHA is moving in this direction not simply to punish, but to provide a real disincentive to those employers who accept worker injuries as "an unavoidable part of the cost of doing business."

We also hope that higher OSHA penalties will be seen as an incentive to adopt an effective Safety and Health Management System that combines management leadership with worker participation.

New Regulations, Guidelines and Directives

Effective workplace safety and health standards are at the heart of OSHA's mission. This is why the new leadership in the Department of Labor and in OSHA has been working to reinvigorate more than 20 items on the Regulatory Agenda and get them moving again. Many of these have literally been sitting in drawers for the last several years while workers continue to suffer avoidable injuries, illnesses and fatalities.

Since January 2009, OSHA has accelerated its efforts to develop long-awaited standards addressing hazardous exposure to crystalline silica, beryllium, and food flavorings containing diacetyl.

We announced this spring a major new regulatory initiative to protect workers from combustible dust explosions, and we expect to issue an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking very soon.

OSHA recently published a direct final rule for acetylene hazards and a final rule updating the personal protective equipment consensus standards.

We are also close to publishing a proposed hazard communications safety rule to align OSHA standards with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Hazardous Chemicals. This will be OSHA's first major regulatory action under the new administration.

In construction, we are committed to publishing a cranes and derricks standard. After that, our focus will be on issuing a final rule on confined spaces.

New Frontiers

OSHA is looking at all its programs and resources to ensure that we are placing proper emphasis and support where they're needed most.

Over the past several years, the Government Accountability Office has issued two major reports that address the problems of oversight, documentation, and effectiveness of our cooperative programs, especially the Voluntary Protection Programs - "VPP." OSHA is reviewing these concerns and the GAO's recommendations for addressing them.

We are also looking at the broader picture. With the involvement and support of our stakeholders, we are considering how our cooperative programs should fit into OSHA's overall goals and budget. Our aim is to strike a proper balance with our current - and necessary - emphasis on standards and enforcement.

We have nothing against recognizing those companies that go above and beyond minimum health and safety standards; but in a time of scarce resources, this administration will put its energy and resources into those companies that need the most help and attention, not those already doing well on their own.

OSHA will also look for hazardous situations where standards don't exist but are needed.

If we're going to move ahead on more and better standards, OSHA needs to find ways to streamline the cumbersome, lengthy rulemaking process.

However, while our standards and enforcement are necessary and essential, they are only the ground floor of a whole structure of strategies that keep people safe and healthy on the job. It's like a credit card where making only the minimum payment each month prevents you from getting hit with the worst fines and fees, but it won't keep you out of trouble.

We need to move beyond the traditional ways of measuring our progress, simply counting the number of standards issued, or counting the number of inspections conducted, or counting the amount of fines issued. Instead, we need to make the life of every working man and woman count, and we need to look at broader factors that contribute to occupational safety and health.

In the future, we need to start examining the things that are hard to count but nevertheless make a fundamental and enormous impact on work in this country - such as the way work is organized and the impact of work hours, fatigue, and health and safety programs.

And soon we must confront the 60,000-pound elephant in the room: Ergonomics. Let's acknowledge a couple of obvious things about "ergo." First, it's a huge health and safety problem, recognized by strong science. Second, it's a huge political football that some very big players don't want to see on the field. Well, for the sake of our working men and women, we have to take the field and make some fundamental changes in America's workplaces.

OSHA and its sister agency, NIOSH, can't manage this transformation alone. We need allies in the labor and environmental movements, and allies among students, scientists and sociologists.

As OSHA moves into even more aggressive programs, we will need allies with spines and spirit. Instead of ceding leadership in the inevitable political debate to those ideologically driven business associations whose response to any enforcement or regulatory initiative is a reactive, unthinking "NO," we need allies in the progressive business community who will stand alongside America's labor unions and declare "Yes we can" and "Yes we will" - because we know that America draws its economic strength from a healthy and safe workforce.

Training, Education and Outreach

In the field of workplace safety and health, prevention is our priority. Prevention is the most efficient, cost-effective and reliable way to save lives. This is why we emphasize education and training - and our Nation's workforce needs more safety and health training.

Last week (Sept. 18), OSHA awarded more than $6.8 million in Susan Harwood Training Grants to 30 recipients, encompassing 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.

The grants support workplace safety and health programs that educate workers and employers in industries with high hazard and fatality rates, workers with limited English proficiency, hard-to-reach workers and supervisors, and small business employers. This year the agency received a record number of 345 applications.

OSHA intends to look for new ways to reach out to businesses so we can work together to prevent workplace tragedies. For example, we are well aware that half the workplace fatalities each year occur in construction jobs, and that a disproportionate number of these fatalities are Hispanic workers. To address this problem, in 2010 Secretary Solis will convene a first-of-its-kind national dialogue and action summit on construction safety and the Latino community.

Pandemic Influenza

At the beginning of my remarks to you today, I underscored the value of management and labor working together to solve common concerns. Consider this:

A worldwide outbreak of a severe strain of influenza could disrupt our economy and our society for weeks and quite possibly many months. In a worst-case situation, employers in affected regions of our country could face as much as 40 percent absenteeism in their workforce. 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.

Two years ago, OSHA published two major guidance documents to help employers prepare their workplaces for an influenza pandemic. OSHA recently issued a number of new fact sheets, QuickCards, and guidance documents on Pandemic Flu preparedness. We have established a Web page with links to these and other resources. Very soon we'll post on this Web page a new self-training eTool.

A public health study recently released by Harvard researchers found that just one in three businesses in our Nation believes that it's prepared to sustain its business operations without severe problems if H1N1 causes severe reductions in their workforce for two weeks. Only one in five businesses believe it could avoid major problems if high absenteeism continues for a month.

Don't wait to become a statistical casualty. I urge you to visit OSHA's Pandemic Flu Web page and use the free resources to develop a plan for your workplace today.

Health Insurance Reform

Another workplace health issue that has drawn nationwide attention is health insurance reform.

Looking at the numbers, one thing is clear: The status quo of our current health insurance system is unsustainable.

  • Skyrocketing costs are squeezing family budgets, threatening businesses' viability, consuming state and local budgets, and exploding our national deficit.
  • At the same time, eroding coverage is leaving more and more Americans uninsured - one injury or illness away from bankruptcy.
  • And even Americans with insurance have less security and stability than ever before.

The undeniable fact is: We have by far the most expensive health care system in the world.

  • We spend 50 percent more per person on health care than the next most costly nation.
  • We are now spending roughly one in every six dollars on health care. If we do nothing: in 30 years, one out of every three dollars in our economy will be tied up in the health care system.
  • And far too much of our spending goes to insurance bureaucracy that does nothing to improve our health.

In the last ten years, premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance have risen 133 percent - rising three times the rate of wages.

American businesses - especially small businesses - say high health costs are impeding their ability to compete, expand and hire more workers. Too often, they're forced to choose between covering their workers and staying afloat.

And health care spending today consumes 30 percent more of state and local budgets than 20 years ago - forcing governments to choose between cutting services and raising taxes.

For all Americans, the President's plan reins in the cost of health care. Health insurance reform will -

  • strengthen security and stability to those who have insurance
  • provide insurance to those who don't
  • slow the growth of health care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government.

Acknowledgments

Even with all the challenges before us, I have hope for safer and healthier days ahead for our Nation's workforce.

Here in Wisconsin, I'm hopeful when I recall that OSHA has worked with the building trades and power plant constructors to improve crane and rigging safety.

I also have hope when I consider how OSHA's Wisconsin Area Offices and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Center for Ergonomics have worked together to protect the safety and health of workers in the healthcare industries.

I want to thank Wisconsin AFL-CIO President David Newby and his staff for putting this conference together. OSHA and the AFL-CIO have worked together to discuss workplace issues and to ensure safe jobs in this state. In this fiscal year alone, we've had several dozen meetings with unions, and we'll continue to meet annually with the state AFL-CIO on safety and health issues.

I want to thank Sharon Simon with the National Labor College and Neill deClercq from the University of Wisconsin School for Workers for their help developing this conference, and WisCOSH for its sponsorship.

A lot of people have come together to provide you with solid information for today's conference, simply to help you do your jobs better, so let's show the organizers our thanks with a round of applause...

Let's also acknowledge the efforts of the School for Workers at the University of Wisconsin's campus in Madison. The faculty and staff of the school have brought three essential components - teaching, research and outreach - to thousands of workers, union leaders and employers throughout Wisconsin, our Nation, and the world.

My thanks to WisCOSH for its longstanding commitment to worker safety and health and the cooperative spirit that this organization brings to Wisconsin workers.

Charge to Safety and Health Professionals

Finally, I want to encourage everyone here to remain active in workplace safety and health. Please: Continue to take part in regulatory hearings, send us your thoughts during the comment periods, voice your concerns, and share your experience and expertise.

First and foremost, we need strong standards that protect workers, but we also need standards that work. This is where you make a difference. When OSHA is doing something right, support us by speaking up. When we're missing the mark, I know you'll be there to say so, too.

As you proceed through this conference and return to work next week, here's something to keep in mind: Last November, our country voted for change. However, even after that historic election, change doesn't come by itself. It doesn't come because Barack Obama is President, or because Hilda Solis is Secretary of Labor.

Change in our Nation will only come when you work for it every day and when you demand that your political leadership - in state legislatures, Congress, the Department of Labor and the White House - act on your behalf every day.

The opportunities before us are endless, so let's never be satisfied. Seize this moment. Get involved. Make a difference.

You have a great conference ahead of you. I appreciate your warm welcome, and I know you'll keep striving for safer and better workplaces for all American workers.

Thank you.




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