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• Information Date: 04/28/2010
• Presented To: WORKERS MEMORIAL DAY
• Speaker: Assistant Secretary of Labor David Michaels

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
David Michaels
Assistant Secretary of Labor
For Occupational Safety and Health

Workers Memorial Day
National Labor College
Silver Spring, Maryland
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Thanks to the National Labor College's Interim President Paula Peinovich and to the college's dedicated staff.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who spoke here last year, sends her warm greetings and her solemn promise that the United States Department of Labor is working today and every day of the year to protect the rights and lives of workers in our country.

April 2010 has been a difficult month for American workers. Our Nation has been transfixed by the loss of workers in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia, the oil rig explosion south of Louisiana, and the refinery fire in Washington State.

These were the headlines we've been reading. But we also know that every day in this country, more than 14 workers lose their lives in preventable workplace tragedies - close to 100 deaths every week. Most of these workers get no headlines; if they're lucky, a short article in the back of the local paper.

Yesterday, Secretary Solis and I observed first-hand the true cost of these tragedies when 25 family members of workers killed on the job came to the Department of Labor to talk about how these preventable incidents have irrevocably and forever changed their lives.

Even further from the headlines and public consciousness is the fact that 4.6 million workers suffer from serious occupational injuries each year - all preventable.

Tens of thousands more die every year from workplace disease caused by exposure to asbestos, diacetyl, silica, beryllium, hexavalent chromium and hundreds of other deadly toxins.

These are not isolated problems.

Collectively, these are worker safety issues and they point to a disturbing pattern of deadly neglect that the Nation has tolerated for too long as simply the cost of doing business and the cost of putting profits before people.

Well, today we say "that price is too high."

The fact is, we don't just have a mine crisis in this country.

We don't just have a refinery crisis in this country.

We have a workplace safety and health crisis in this country!

It's true that we need major improvements in the Mine Safety Act, but it's just as true that we need major changes in the Occupational Safety and Health Act - a law that has not seen a significant revision in 40 years.

In MSHA's case, news stories are noting how attorneys for mine owners - and one mining company in particular - have contested thousands of government citations, so much so that

  • the appeals process is log-jammed
  • justice is delayed
  • tougher enforcement is blocked
  • workers continue to be exposed to potentially lethal hazards.

At OSHA, where I work, existing penalties today are hardly enough to deter employers who are determined to gamble with their workers' lives - and we all know what happens when we gamble: somebody always loses.

In 2001 at a Delaware oil refinery, a tank of sulfuric acid exploded, killing a worker named Jeff Davis. His body literally dissolved in the acid. The OSHA penalty was only $175,000. Yet, in the same incident, thousands of dead fish and crabs were discovered, allowing an EPA Clean Water Act citation of $10 million. How can we tell Jeff Davis' wife and his five children that the penalty for killing fish and crabs is 50 times higher than the penalty for killing their husband and father?

It's an unfortunate fact that sometimes monetary penalties are just not enough. Nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of time in prison.

The plain fact is, to outlaw criminal behavior, we need criminal penalties. Right now, under the OSH Act, the maximum criminal penalty for killing a worker as a result of a willful citation is only a misdemeanor.

The Protecting America's Workers Act, now under consideration in Congress, would

  • raise the ceiling on OSHA fines
  • increase criminal penalties and criminal liability for employers who knowingly endanger workers
  • expand the rights of workers' and victims' families
  • strengthen whistleblower protections.

Let me say something about whistleblower protections. The creators of the OSH Act understood that OSHA doesn't work unless workers participate and use their rights.

But workers won't feel comfortable using their rights if they don't feel protected. In 1970, paragraph 11(c) of the OSH Act was a new, modern way to protect workers from retaliation for exercising their rights. Today, 40 years later, it's a dinosaur.

Today no worker who does not belong to a union can feel fully protected as was intended by the creators of this law.

For OSHA to work, for workers to feel protected, this must change - and it must change now.

In fact, it's so bad out there that many workers are even afraid to report their injuries.

We're looking hard at owners who may be discouraging workers from reporting injuries and illnesses. We're on the lookout for incentive programs that reward workers for reporting no injuries - because these programs motivate workers to hide their wounds, delay treatment, ignore hazards that continue to threaten the health and safety of other workers, and conceal the true nature of management's priorities.

When we detect any effort to conceal worker injuries, we will take swift, corrective action. We will target for extra attention those companies within high-injury industries that report suspiciously low numbers. We will question the workers and look at the books - and they had better be accurate.

Today, the workers who are most afraid to speak up are also those who are most vulnerable to serious harm. The fact is, Latino workers suffer and die on the job at a greater rate while doing the hardest, most unhealthy, most dangerous jobs.

This can't continue. We have to take action, and this is why, earlier this month in Houston, Secretary Solis convened the first-ever National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety.

Nearly a thousand workers, employers, labor leaders, representatives from community and faith-based organizations, consulates and government gathered for two days in Houston. Many of you were there.

Together, we sought new and effective ways to improve workers' knowledge of their workplace rights and their ability to exercise those rights.

Workers came from across the country to relate their fears and their ordeals on the job. We met the surviving worker from an August 2009 tragedy in Austin. Henri Sanchez came to the Summit to tell how he warned his employer, to no avail, not to overload a scaffold, not to use it to haul heavy loads. He told us how the scaffold - uninspected, improperly assembled and overburdened - collapsed. Henri hung on for his life, but his three companion workers fell to their deaths.

Today, on Workers Memorial Day, we are dedicating a granite and brick memorial to all the workers who lost their lives on the job. In the Department of Labor's national office in Washington, we have a memorial, too. On one entire wall in OSHA's conference room, the photographs of fallen workers, donated by their families, are on display - a daily reminder of whom we are working for, and whose memory we defend and

Just over a year ago, Hilda Solis took over the Department of Labor and announced that "there's a new sheriff in town!"

Well, the sheriff is here, and she's gotten down to business.

With a new emphasis on standards and enforcement, the Department of Labor is hiring more inspectors and we are conducting more inspections and issuing higher penalties. Just ask BP, who has the honor of receiving the two highest penalties in OSHA's history - the last being $87 million for failure to correct problems that led to the catastrophic explosion in 2005 that killed 15 workers.

And we're making sure our state plans really are at least as effective as federal OSHA.

We've put the regulatory process back in motion. We're working on dozens of new standards that will protect workers, but more important, we're also working on streamlining the regulatory process so that we don't have to wait years, or sometimes decades to get needed standards out.

We want to see all employers adopt a systemic approach to safety and health that involves workers and requires every employer to find and fix every recognized workplace hazard, even if there's no specific OSHA standard.

This week OSHA announced that we will begin the process of developing a rule that would mandate employers to develop, implement and maintain an effective worker Injury and Illness Prevention Program.

We've also announced that we're working on new standards to cover combustible dust, infectious diseases and putting the musculoskeletal disease column back on the OSHA injury and illness log.

We're moving forward with silica, walking and working surfaces and cranes and derricks.

So: Change has come, but much more change is needed.

We owe it to the fallen workers memorialized here, we owe it to their families, we owe it to the men and women working today all across the Nation, and we owe it to future generations of workers.

But we need to carry this struggle further.

It is our mission to make sure these workers did not die in vain. That we've learned from their sacrifice and we've gained something from their sacrifice.

For those whom we are mourning and for those whose lives we need to protect, this nation needs the Protecting America's Workers Act.

We need to keep speaking out in our workplaces, in our communities, in the newspapers and blogs and in the Congress.

For the sake of those we've lost, on Workers Memorial Day and every day, we will embrace the spirit of Mother Jones and "Mourn for the dead" and "fight like hell for the living."


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