Speeches - Table of Contents Speeches - Table of Contents
• Information Date: 10/06/2010
• Presented To: United Steelworkers
• Speaker: David Michaels

DR. DAVID MICHAELS
Assistant Secretary of Labor
for Occupational Safety and Health

UNITED STEELWORKERS
Health, Safety and Environment Conference
Pittsburgh, PA
Wednesday, October 6, 2010


"OSHA'S RETURN TO BASICS"

GREETINGS

Good afternoon. It's great to be here in Pittsburgh, which has a long and cherished history for the United Steelworkers.

I was delighted to receive Jim Frederick's invitation to be part of your conference today. Jim asked me to speak about OSHA's "new direction."

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, my deputy Jordan Barab and I bring greeting and thanks to the United Steelworkers leadership and rank and file members for everything they are doing to ensure that workers are protected and that their workplaces are focused on prevention.

I especially want to thank USW President Leo Gerard, Vice President Gary Beavers and Health and Safety Director Mike Wright for their strong national voice advocating for workers across the country and in our nation's capital. With all of the uneducated talk that circulates through Washington, D.C., their voices are a clear call to workers across America to stand up for their right to a safe workplace, and a clear warning to employers that you will refuse to accept programs that would cut corners on safety and put workers at risk.

BACK TO BASICS

We at the Department of Labor and OSHA have made it clear over the last year that OSHA's "new direction" is a return to basics -- that is, establishing up-to-date workplace safety and health regulations based on strong science, and emphasizing strong and fair enforcement of those standards.

What other choice do we have? In early 2009, as we recognized that more than 5,000 men and women in America were getting killed on the job every year and tens of thousands more injured and exposed at work to potentially long-term health hazards, the new Administration understood that significant changes had to be made in OSHA to make a greater impact on our workplaces.

Certainly all these preventable deaths and injuries in our workplaces do not reflect Secretary Solis' vision of "Good Jobs For Everyone" when it should be clear to everyone that only safe jobs are good jobs. Numerous reports from the occupational safety and health community as well as from within the Federal government in recent years criticized OSHA for failing to fulfill its mission.

Therefore, in the last year and a half, OSHA's focus has returned to the original intent of the legislation that created the Agency 40 years ago. OSHA is first and foremost a public health agency with a mission to protect workers from death, injury and illness, and now we are acting like it.

WELCOMING STAKEHOLDER PERSPECTIVES

To bring about much-needed changes in our workplaces, we are looking for as many perspectives and partners as we can. Earlier this year we held a day-long open forum in Washington, D.C. Workers, employers, trade associations and families of workers sickened or killed on the job came and spoke to us.

Mike Wright, your HSE Department director, participated in this forum. He asked OSHA to provide "appropriate penalties" when we find employers who fail to protect their workers. Then, he added, what the Steelworkers' union wants most from a workplace safety and health point of view is to bring management and workers together to prevent anyone from getting hurt.

Mike said the USW's membership wants the kind of cooperative effort between workers and employers that focuses on addressing workplace hazards together, setting goals, measuring progress and working together toward continual improvement.

Mike called for "a strong safety and health program rule" that would prevent worker deaths.

PREVENTION PROGRAMS

I am here today to tell you that OSHA heard you, and we are moving clearly and confidently in all these directions.

Earlier this year, we announced a new regulatory effort that would require employers in America to implement an effective Injury and Illness Prevention Program tailored to hazards in their workplaces.

This regulation represents a fundamental change in how employers think about worker safety. Instead of waiting for a government inspection or a workplace tragedy to address workplace hazards, employers would be required to develop a plan to find all of the safety and health hazards in their facilities that might injure or kill workers -- and then fix those hazards.

It is very straightforward and hard to argue about: To save workers lives, we want every employer to find and fix their hazards.

Over the summer we held several meetings across the United States to invite public discussion on this significant potential change in our workplaces.

The idea of an Injury and Illness Prevention Program is hardly new. Thousands of the best workplaces in America already have these programs, and employers who implement them find that the resulting efficiencies, worker productivity and lower costs make their workplaces highly competitive.

These programs level the playing field in both domestic and global markets, allowing responsible employers to survive whether the economy is in a surge or in a slump.

But these programs work only when they give workers a voice and a role in the process of making workplaces safer and more healthful.

And we know that safety and health programs fail if workers aren't at the table as full participants. I think it was Charlie Richardson who said it best yesterday - "If you are not at the table, you're on the menu."

HUMAN TOLL OF NEGLECT

Mandatory safety and health programs can't come soon enough. In recent months we have witnessed a series of intolerable workplace tragedies: Seven workers were killed in a refinery fire in Anacortes, Washington; 29 coal miners perished in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia; 11 more workers were lost in the Deepwater Horizon explosion off the coast of Louisiana; and when the Kleen Energy power plant construction site in Connecticut blew up on Super Bowl Sunday, six more workers were killed.

These catastrophic events are powerful reminders of the risks faced by workers across our country every day, and it hasn't escaped the attention of everyone in this room that many of these workers killed on the job this year were members of the steelworkers union.

Unfortunately, OSHA has only limited tools to encourage companies to do the right thing. Certainly, our penalty policies are too low to have a strong deterrent effect.

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?

LEGISLATIVE REFORM

The painful truth is that OSHA's penalty structure hasn't been increased in 40 years, not even to keep pace with inflation. Some remedies have been proposed. The Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010, rechristened the "Byrd Bill" in honor of the late West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, is now under consideration in Congress.

This bill contains major improvements in the mine safety act, but also merges several parts of the Protecting America's Workers Act. It would strengthen OSHA's enforcement powers, update our penalties, and bring more consistency and strength to protect whistleblowers.

There are also provisions that would grant victims and families of injured and killed workers more access to information when OSHA investigates a workplace tragedy.

On Workers Memorial Day in April, Fred Redmond, USW's International Vice President for Human Affairs, spoke forcefully and passionately about the benefits of enacting these improvements. I appreciate his comments on how the steelworkers union is pushing for progress in worker safety.

In June, Kim Nibarger, a USW health and safety specialist, testified before a Senate subcommittee about improvements needed to strengthen OSHA's ability to regulate.

I'm grateful to Fred, Kim, Steve and other USW leaders and members for speaking out on behalf of workers' rights and in support of OSHA. There are many people opposed to any changes that will give workers a stronger voice or increase penalties for the worst employers, so when you stand up it's heartening to realize that OSHA isn't in this fight alone.

ENFORCEMENT ACTIVITIES

During Fiscal Year 2010, which ended last week, OSHA issued more egregious and significant cases than it has at any time in the last decade -- including $81 million issued against BP as a result of our follow up to the Texas City catastrophe, and the $16 million case against Kleen Energy in Connecticut.

The BP Texas City citation was the largest in OSHA's history, surpassing the previous largest penalty -- the original citation against BP after the tragic 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers.

Earlier this week, Washington State OSHA cited Tesoro for almost $2.4 million -- the largest citation in that state's history --for the explosion that killed seven workers last April.

We launched our National Emphasis Programs for oil refineries and highly hazardous chemicals to verify that employers' written PSM programs match their actions. Sadly, our inspectors have found many facilities where safety programs that look good on paper don't follow through in practice.

OSHA is stepping up enforcement in other ways. In June we launched the Severe Violators Enforcement Program. This new program is designed as a special, supplemental enforcement tool to address recalcitrant employers who fail to meet their obligations under the OSH Act. The program features more mandatory inspections of an identified company, more mandatory follow-up inspections, and a more intense examination of an employer's history to assess if there are systemic problems that would trigger additional inspections.

And last week, OSHA's new penalty policy took effect. While maximum penalties are still set by law at a very low level, administrative changes will reduce the level of reductions provided to employers. We are also working with the state plans to increase their penalty levels. As low as federal OSHA's penalties are, the average penalties in many of the state plans are many times lower.

Enforcement remains a priority for us because it is a proven, useful deterrent, even for the best employers who may be tempted to defer maintenance or cut corners on worker training and safety procedures. The threat of enforcement and penalties reminds all employers to do the right thing for their workers.

It's true that stronger enforcement and higher penalties won't bring back Jeff Davis or the workers who died in Texas City, in Anacortes, or on the Deepwater Horizon rig, and they won't restore to grieving families all the other workers who die on the job every year.

But...citing bad employers and making those citations stick will send a clear message to employers that deaths on the job are not acceptable -- ever -- and that OSHA is making its presence felt where we are needed most.

INCENTIVE PROGRAMS AND ACCURATE REPORTING

OSHA is moving ahead on several other fronts to make the Agency responsive to the needs of our 21st century workplaces.

We are concerned about accurate reporting. Federal and private studies, along with our own inspections, have uncovered evidence of employers discouraging workers from reporting injuries or seeking medical treatment that would lead to an OSHA-recordable incident.

We have found that incentive and discipline programs that focus on injury reports often have the actual effect of discouraging injured workers from reporting an injury or illness. We have listened to the Steelworkers' description of "bloody pocket syndrome" and we're determined to do something about it.

We strongly disapprove of programs that offer workers parties and raffle prizes for not reporting injuries, or programs where managers receive large bonuses for driving down their injury rates, or programs where workers are disciplined for reporting an injury.

On the other hand, we can get behind incentive programs that reward workers for demonstrating safe work practices, reporting hazards or near misses, or participating in health and safety training or on a health and safety committee.

Programs that discourage workers from reporting injuries or illnesses are unacceptable. When worker injuries and illnesses are concealed, no investigation by the employer or OSHA can take place, so nothing is learned, nothing is corrected, and workers remain exposed to future harm.

Because accurate reporting is essential to eliminating injuries and illnesses in the workplace, last October we launched a National Emphasis Program on recordkeeping to assess the accuracy of injury and illness data recorded by employers.

A few weeks ago we issued 83 willful citations to an employer for failing to record and for improperly recording work-related injuries and illnesses in a manufacturing facility. For this irresponsible behavior, we proposed penalties of $1.2 million.

STANDARDS

Of course, before enforcement comes standards, the cornerstone of workplace safety and health. Creating effective, science-based standards is a long and complex process made all the more so by complicated rulemaking procedures. Given the existing process and limited resources, OSHA can work on only a limited number of standards at a time.

The Labor Department and OSHA are committed to an aggressive regulatory agenda that focuses on worker protection.

We have made progress in recent months, such as the long-awaited rule for cranes and derricks in construction that takes effect in November.

We are pressing forward to develop standards addressing hazardous exposure to crystalline silica, beryllium and combustible dust.

MOVING FORWARD

We must not think of the Gulf Coast oil spill, the Big Branch Mine tragedy, the Tesoro refinery fire in Washington State, or the Kleen Energy plant explosion -- as isolated incidents or random events. Collectively, they point to a disturbing pattern of deadly neglect that our Nation has tolerated for too long as simply "the cost of doing business."

Well, today I am here to tell you that the price is too high!

OSHA can't reverse this deadly trend alone. We will need the support of workers, employers, safety organizations and trade associations. When we hold forums and invite public comment, I'm counting on everyone here to speak up and give us your perspective.

Only with your active participation can we hope to move ahead with effective rulemaking and bring fundamental changes to our workplaces that will save lives.

Change, if it's going to come, has to come from all of us, working together, locking arms, stiffening our resolve, and moving forward to support reform.

We owe this much to Jeff Davis and all the other fallen workers who cannot be with us today because they died on the job or have been too weakened from a work-related illness to be here.

We owe this 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.

For their sake, today and every day, we all need to embrace the spirit of Mother Jones who taught us to "mourn for the dead and fight like hell for the living."


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