Speeches - Table of Contents Speeches - Table of Contents
• Information Date: 10/27/2010
• Speaker: Jordan Barab

Remarks For
Jordan Barab
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor
for Occupational Safety and Health

Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center
International Symposium
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas
Wednesday, October 27, 2010


"Saving Lives and Transforming Workplaces:
OSHA and Process Safety"

Thanks to Dr. Sam Mannan for inviting me to be part of this international symposium on Process Safety Management.

I want to express my appreciation on behalf of OSHA and the Department of Labor for Dr. Mannan's leadership of the Mary Kay O'Connor Center to advance the important work of this center and to honor the memory of its namesake.

OSHA is soon approaching its 40th anniversary. During this time we will remember the nearly 4,400 workers who died on the job last year and the many thousands who have died needlessly every year since the Act was passed. We also need to remember the more than 3.3 million workers being injured and exposed every year in our country to chemicals that can cause long-term illnesses.

And so I'd like to dedicate my remarks this morning to the memory of these workers...

to the majority of responsible employers in this country and around the world who strive every day to do the right thing and practice prevention so that their workers can be productive in a safe and healthful environment...

and, of course, to the memory of Mary Kay O'Connor and to her family, to the faculty and staff of this Center, and to the safety and health professionals taking time to participate in this symposium.

If we can learn something here, if we can share information and arrive at some solutions that can prevent a workplace catastrophe and save workers' lives -- then our time here is well spent.

Dr. David Michaels, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health in the United States, led the U.S. delegation last month to the Sixth EU-US Joint Conference on Health and Safety at Work. The US and EU delegations, with representatives of labor and management, government and academia, met for two days in Boston to exchange ideas, experience and perspectives on a number of worker safety and health issues of concern on both sides of the Atlantic.

We were proud to note that this year's delegation from the United States included the largest representation of organized labor since we began our joint conferences with the European Union 13 years ago. This reflects the current Administration's support for workers' rights and our desire to give workers a stronger voice in their workplace safety and health.

As we noted at the US-EU talks, we recognize that various nations and groups bring different perspectives and strengths; and, like in Boston, this symposium here in College Station, Texas, presents an opportunity for all of us to learn and share.

So, let me share with you what the Department of Labor and OSHA are doing to deliver better working conditions for our working men and women here in the United States.

Strategic Plan

Earlier this month the Department of Labor announced its 6-year Strategic Plan, which sets goals and priorities that all Department staff will be working toward through 2016 under the leadership of Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

The Department of Labor's new Strategic Plan, now in effect, can be summarized in three simple but bold declarations:

  1. Everyone in America deserves the opportunity to secure a good job;

  2. Employers have a responsibility to comply with the law and to protect their workers; and

  3. All workers deserve a fair wage in exchange for a day's work, and all businesses deserve a level playing field, rather than competing against those that gain an unfair advantage by breaking laws.

The Strategic Plan puts the United States Department of Labor, including OSHA, on course to pursue Secretary Solis' vision of Good Jobs for Everyone.

OSHA: Back to Basics

When the new Administration under President Barak Obama began a little less than two years ago, Hilda Solis, the daughter of union members and a Congresswoman from California, was selected to lead the Department of Labor.

Secretary Solis wasted no time establishing her priorities for the federal department or for the agency in charge of assuring the safety and health of workers.

Faced with limited resources to enforce working conditions in 7 million workplaces employing 130 million workers across the country, OSHA would focus on the original intent of the OSH Act that created the Agency almost 40 years ago: strong and effective standards and enforcement of those standards.

This decisive focus has proven to be timely, given the workplace catastrophes we have seen in this country:

This year in the United States, seven workers were killed in a refinery fire in Anacortes, Washington; 29 coal miners killed in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia; 11 more workers were killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion off the coast of Louisiana; and when the Kleen Energy power plant construction site in Connecticut blew up, six more workers were killed.

What these catastrophic events have in common is that they all fall into the category of low frequency, high-consequence incidents. Not only are they powerful reminders of the risks faced by workers every day here and around the world, but they also present a challenge to industry and enforcement agencies like OSHA in trying to determine how to prevent similar events in the future.

These events tell us that, despite the efforts of safety and health professionals in industry, government and academia, more needs to be done because workers are still dying on the job from preventable hazards.

In May, when I addressed members of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association meeting in San Antonio, I pointed out that in the prior three months alone, 58 workers had died in explosions, fires and collapses at refineries, coal mines, an oil drilling rig, and a power plant construction site.

OSHA has been particularly concerned about the recent number of serious incidents at refineries that have scalded, burned or struck down workers.

We are tracking these catastrophes and looking for trends -- including problems resulting from aging facilities.

Since the BP Texas City explosion in 2005, OSHA has counted over 20 serious incidents in refineries across the country.

In case after case, disaster after disaster, our investigations point to process safety-related problems and, most likely, systemic safety and health problems -- not just in one company but in entire industries.

National Emphasis Programs for Chemicals and Refineries

OSHA's main response to these time bombs in our workplaces is to move forward with national emphasis programs that address these troubled industries.

We launched 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's Refinery NEP is coming close to completion. To date, we have opened inspections at 53 refineries, with 5 remaining. These inspections have resulted in an average of 17 violations per inspection with average penalties of $166,000.

Given the tragically ample number of opportunities to learn from catastrophes in this industry and the recognized potential for injuries and deaths from well-known hazards, these numbers are disturbing -- and we are currently developing a strategy to extend our presence in refineries.

OSHA began a Chemical NEP in June 2009. This program, which ran as a pilot, resulted in 136 inspections with an average of 9 violations per inspection. This is significant for quick inspections that focus on just 10 to 15 questions. OSHA has decided to continue this pilot NEP until we finish developing a plan to take this Chemical NEP nationwide.

Lessons Learned

From our inspections conducted under our National Emphasis Programs for chemicals and refineries, we find three concepts that save more workers' lives.

In the brief time we have together this morning, I'm going to present you with three concepts that I believe can help you, as safety professionals, to save more workers' lives.

First: Effective process safety programs and strong workplace health and safety culture are critical for success in preventing catastrophic events.

Second: Industries need to learn from their mistakes. We know the major causes and we know the remedies. Yet lessons learned are not applied and the same problems surface to threaten workers again and again.

Third -- and I'm not telling you anything you don't already know: Numbers don't tell the whole story. Focusing on low DART rates alone won't protect you from disaster. New metrics are needed.

Now, let's explore these ideas a bit more.

Let's look at Concept number one: Effective process safety management systems and workplace safety culture are critical for success in preventing catastrophic events.

In the Baker Panel Report, issued after the BP Texas City explosion, the panel devoted considerable space to the importance of effective process safety systems and the need to build a strong corporate safety culture.

Process safety failures are typically low-frequency but high-consequence events. Our PSM systems have to be strong, and we cannot wait until we have an incident to discover that they were not.

What it comes down to is organizational culture. To paraphrase Professor Andrew Hopkins (whose work I'm sure you are all aware of): Workplace culture is not just an educational program that gets everyone to be more risk-aware and think "safety first." It's deeper and more ingrained than this. Hopkins and the Center for Chemical Process Safety have defined culture as "the way we do things around here."

What I'm talking about is a set of practices that define the organization and influence the individuals who make up the organization. This kind of pervasive, systemic organizational safety culture must come from the top -- and it must be expressed with transformative action, not just simple slogans.

Next: Concept Number Two: Industry must learn from its mistakes.

For three years now, OSHA has had in place a Refinery Process Safety Management National Emphasis Program. We are deeply troubled by the significant lack of compliance we are finding in our inspections, and with the number of serious refinery problems that continue to occur.

Time and again, our inspectors are finding the same violations in multiple refineries, including those with common ownership -- a clear indication that concerns and findings are not being communicated across corporations or throughout the industry or even within different units in the same refinery.

Consistently throughout the course of the Refinery NEP, we have found that over 70 percent of the citations fall into the top four PSM elements:

  • Mechanical Integrity

  • Process Safety Information

  • Operating Procedures

  • Process Hazard Analysis

Let's talk about these top four elements:

  1. In MECHANICAL INTEGRITY, problems include failure to perform inspections and tests, and failure to correct deficiencies in a timely manner. This is a particular concern given the aging of refineries in the United States.

  2. PROCESS SAFETY INFORMATION, including failure to document compliance with Recognized and Generally Accepted Good Engineering Practices to keep process safety information up to date, and to document the design of emergency pressure relief systems.

  3. OPERATING PROCEDURES: failure to establish and follow procedures for key operating phases, such as emergency shutdowns, and using inaccurate or out-of-date procedures.

  4. PROCESS HAZARDS ANALYSIS, including lack of attention to human factors and facility siting, and failing to address PHA findings and recommendations in a timely manner -- or, all too often, failing to address them at all.

More than a year ago, OSHA sent a letter to every petroleum plant manager in the country, informing them of these frequently cited hazards. Yet, a year after this letter went out, our inspectors continued to find the same problems in many facilities.

OSHA is urging employers to take advantage of this information, and to treat our stepped-up inspections under the NEP as an opportunity -- to increase their focus on Process Safety Management to reduce the number and severity of process incidents in their facilities.

Here at Texas A&M University, your celebrated pioneer in process safety management, Trevor Kletz, has stressed the importance of learning and remembering the lessons of the past by taking what we learn from past failures and feeding them into a formal process where safety is managed systematically and comprehensively.

And, finally: Concept Number Three: The problem with numbers.

In any business or organization, one of the problems we find when trying to measure performance is determining how and what we measure.

Unfortunately, as we've discovered, having good numbers on your OSHA 300 logs doesn't correlate with having an effective process safety program.

The classic example of this is BP-Texas City, which had very good injury and illness numbers prior to the 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured 170 others. This tragedy, of course, revealed serious process safety and workplace culture problems at the facility despite the good numbers the company had on paper.

It was noted in press reports that many of the workers killed at BP Texas City had just finished a meeting that touted their safety record. More recently, it was noted in the press that BP executives were on the Deepwater Horizon drill in platform in the Gulf of Mexico, celebrating their excellent safety record shortly before the explosion and fire that led to the deaths of 11 workers. In the days following that catastrophe, company officials continued to wave their low injury and fatality rates as a defense while workers widows planned funerals.

There's a message here: Boasting about favorable safety rates while workers are dying doesn't make a company look like a serious employer; and trade organizations that give awards to their members based solely on a lack of slips, trips and falls doesn't make them look like they are seriously addressing serious problems.

Don't misunderstand me: We need to keep reporting and tracking the numbers -- DART rates are useful -- but employers must not let those numbers lull them into a false sense of security. Looking only at these numbers doesn't warn us about pending doom from cutting corners on process safety

To ensure strong PSM systems, we need to do a better job of identifying useful leading indicators. We all recognize the stock market's investment warning that "past performance is no guarantee of future success." This also applied to the low-frequency, high-consequence events that process safety programs guard against.

The chemical and petrochemical industries must continue to develop and track leading indicators to measure the performance and continuously improve process safety management systems.

Real progress will come when companies and industry groups can talk to the press about their progress on valid metrics instead of holding up their injury and illness rates after a disaster.

As our refinery NEP comes to an end, we are engaged in a process of trying to figure out how we will address refinery PSM issues in the future. Clearly OSHA's past practice of targeting inspection according to injury and illness numbers is not adequate. However, because of resource limitations, we are also unable to commit to a full-time NEP.

We need to find a way to determine which refineries and which processes are most in need of OSHA's oversight so that we don't waste our time or the company's time in refineries that are doing a good job.

We want to work with you and other stakeholders like unions and experts to find a better way to target problem refineries for more attention. Identifying problems before they become tragedies is the right thing to do for refinery workers and refinery owners.

Because the consequences of a single failure in these facilities can be catastrophic, management must establish systems that ensure that every process operates safely. Process Safety is all about solving systems problems.

Enforcement

Meanwhile, OSHA is continuing with a strong enforcement and standards program throughout American industry.

  • an aggressive agenda for developing up-to-date standards,

  • fair and strong enforcement of those standards with targeted programs that focus on the workplaces where workers are in the most danger,

  • training programs for workers and employers, and

  • compliance assistance to ensure that employers embrace their legal and moral responsibility to protect their workers, and understand how to do comply with the law.

In FY 2010, OSHA conducted more than 34,000 safety and 6,600 health inspections, surpassing the goal we set at the beginning of the year. This is a remarkable achievement, since we diverted significant enforcement resources over many months to ensure the protection of workers in the Gulf Coast cleanup.

Strong enforcement of the law has an additional benefit that has particular importance during the current difficult economy. In the short term, responsible employers who invest in the safety and health of their workers are at a disadvantage competing with irresponsible business owners who cut corners on worker protection and hazard abatement.

Strong enforcement, accompanied by meaningful penalties, levels the playing field.

In June OSHA launched the Severe Violators Enforcement Program. This new program is designed as a supplemental enforcement tool to address recalcitrant employers who fail to meet their obligations under the OSH Act.

Earlier this month, OSHA's new penalty policy went into effect. While our maximum penalties are still set by law at a very low level, administrative changes will reduce the level of reductions. The penalty changes will increase the overall dollar amount of all penalties while maintaining OSHA's policy of reducing penalties for small employers and those acting in good faith.

Injury and Illness Prevention Programs

This spring OSHA announced a new regulatory effort that would require employers to implement an effective Injury and Illness Prevention Program tailored to hazards in their workplaces.

This 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 comprehensive, effective plan to find the safety and health hazards in their facilities that might injure or kill workers -- and then fix those hazards.

The regulation would require employers to take an active approach to ensure healthful and safe working conditions -- focusing on all recognized hazards, not merely ones covered by OSHA standards.

The thousands of best workplaces in America that already have Injury and lllness Prevention Programs -- such as VPP participants -- have seen the beneficial results for themselves. They enjoy higher efficiency, greater worker productivity and lower costs that make their workplaces more profitable and 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. Injury and Illness Prevention Programs fail if workers aren't at the table as full participants.

OSHA has concluded five stakeholder meetings around the country with significant participation by employers and unions. We are eager to move to rulemaking on this critical issue.

Incentive Programs

OSHA is taking a closer look at workplace incentive and discipline programs created to promote safety. Some work well; others do not. When these programs are based primarily on injury and illness numbers, they often have the effect of discouraging workers from reporting an injury or illness.

We strongly disapprove of programs offering workers parties and prizes for not reporting injuries, or bonuses for managers that drive down injury rates, or that discipline workers for reporting an injury.

When programs discourage workers from reporting injuries or illnesses: problems stay concealed, no investigations take place, nothing is learned or corrected, and workers remain exposed to harm.

A prominent national organization that promotes the highest standards of excellence in workplace safety here in the United States, the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants' Association, announced two weeks ago that it supports OSHA's position that workplace safety and health incentive programs must not encourage underreporting of injuries and illnesses.

Davis Layne, the association's executive director, concurred with OSHA that "good incentive programs feature positive reinforcement for demonstrating safe work practices and taking active measures in hazard recognition, analysis and prevention."

So, not all incentive programs are bad. We can support programs that reward workers for demonstrating safe work practices, reporting hazards or close calls, participating in safety and health training, or serving on a workplace safety and health committee.

Accurate Reporting

Because accurate reporting is an essential tool for employers and OSHA to detect problems in workplaces that are placing workers in danger, last October OSHA launched a National Emphasis Program on recordkeeping.

As of Oct. 1, 2010, OSHA has initiated 187 inspections under this NEP. Almost half the inspections conducted so far found recordkeeping violations. The program is scheduled to run through February 2012.

We are serious about this problem. A few weeks ago we fined an irresponsible employer $1.2 million for 83 willful citations because the employer failed to record and improperly recorded work-related injuries and illnesses.

Lesson learned: Don't "cook the books"!

Chemical Safety

We are making progress on finding a new way to address our seriously outdated Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) for chemicals in workplaces.

Many of these standards were adopted in the 1970s, based on science in the 1950s and '60s. Science has moved on, and we now know that there are significant dangers at lower exposures than was thought almost half a century ago.

In June, OSHA assembled a group of stakeholders to discuss options for updating the PELs. These stakeholders, from industry, labor and academia, provided OSHA with several innovative potential solutions. Subsequently, we held a Web forum to encourage the public to nominate a list of chemical they believe are most hazardous for workers, and we received more than 130 nominations.

We are now working closely with NIOSH -- the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health -- to gather information on key chemicals that pose the greatest danger to America's workforce, and we will soon announce the next steps in this initiative.

Compliance Assistance and Outreach

As we move ahead with standards and enforcement, OSHA continues to offer compliance assistance and outreach to workers who don't have ready access to information about the hazards they face and their rights under the law; and we're reaching out to employers -- especially owners of small businesses who want to do the right thing for their workers. OSHA wants to help.

We continually remind small business owners to take advantage of the state-operated On-site Consultation Program. More than 30,000 employers nationwide used this service last year to obtain free, confidential advice that improved their workplaces.

These are employers who decided not to wait for a worker tragedy to happen or for OSHA to come knocking on their doors.

Occupational safety and health experts are ready to work with small- and medium-sized businesses to identify workplace hazards, provide advice on compliance with OSHA standards, and assist employers in establishing safety and health management systems.

OSHA, our partners in cooperative programs, and our Susan Harwood training grant program grantees produce extensive educational materials that are available for free on our Web site.

OSHA's alliances, strategic partnerships and cooperative programs are designed to assist employers who want to protect their workers.

A necessary component of all our cooperative programs must be worker participation. Giving voice to workers is a cornerstone of this Administration.

Outreach to Immigrant Workers

Here in the United States we are addressing a worker safety and health issue that every visitor from another nation who is participating in this symposium also faces. I'm speaking of the special challenges that employers and governments face in protecting immigrant workers.

OSHA has made a concerted effort to reach out to immigrant workers because the statistics are grim: Immigrant workers in the United States are injured and killed on the job in disproportionate numbers nationwide, particularly Spanish-speaking workers and especially in the construction industry.

We are taking steps to be sure that immigrant workers, who often have limited literacy -- in English and sometimes in their native language as well -- are not exploited by unscrupulous employers.

The fact is, when irresponsible employers under-pay, under-train and under-protect immigrant workers, exposing them to workplace hazards, this puts responsible employers at an unfair disadvantage. This is unacceptable and OSHA is taking action.

Earlier this year in Houston, Secretary Solis held a National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety to address these issues and to find new ways to reach out to these workers.

Since then, in every part of our nation, OSHA staff has been partnering with consulates in key cities, and through community and faith-based organizations to inform these workers about their rights to safe workplaces, personal protective equipment and training, and we're helping them understand how to exercise these rights.

Earlier this year OSHA inspectors received a directive to make sure that employers are providing their workers with safety and health information and training in a language and vocabulary that the workers can understand.

This summer, Secretary Solis and Dr. Michaels traveled to the Gulf Coast to observe OSHA's efforts to ensure that workers engaged in the oil spill cleanup were being protected from numerous hazards. During a visit to a cleanup area, the Secretary, who is fluent in Spanish, spoke to one of the workers. The worker admitted to her that he didn't understand most of the training material.

Obviously, this was a problem that had to be addressed. We made a continual, clear demand to BP to provide workers with training that addressed the risks of their job at a level and in a language appropriate for the individual workers.

In addition, within OSHA we realized that we needed to make sure our own Compliance Officers could speak with these workers in their native language. We assigned staff fluent in Vietnamese and Spanish and brought in translators where they were needed most.

So, we all need to be sure our worker training is provided in a language that they can understand.

OSHA offers a Spanish-language Web site with essential information on worker safety and employer responsibilities; we are making our key publications available in Spanish and other languages; and we have multi-lingual operators ready to take calls from workers and employers seeking OSHA's help.

Conclusion

Enforcement remains a priority for the Department of Labor and OSHA 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.

We supplement, or enhance, our enforcement message with compliance assistance, training and outreach, but in the end the burden must be with every employer to establish a culture of safety and health in the workplace.

But it is clear, especially when we're talking about huge petrochemical companies that no amount of OSHA penalties alone is going to significantly influence behavior. In addition to enforcement, OSHA also needs to be in the business of changing culture using whatever means available -- strong enforcement, innovative standards, working together with labor and industry, and the bully pulpit.

This culture should be as integral to daily business activities and approached with this perspective: Workplace safety and health is a process that can be managed, measured and pursued with as much zeal as the employer invests in pursuing profits.

The insurance industry, financial analysts and academia -- such as the Mary Kay O'Connor Center -- all offer ample evidence that, over the longer term, good safety and health management translates into efficiency, productivity, profitability and competitiveness for individual establishments and our nation's economy.

There is no question, then, that safety and productivity are linked and interdependent and must be managed together. The alternative is disaster.

As long as workers suffer each year from preventable injuries or illnesses they received while on the job, we have work to do. Competition, limited resources or just "being too busy to bother" is never an excuse for an employer to cut corners on worker safety and health.

Even in these difficult economic times, we must bear this in mind: No job is a good job unless it's a safe job.

Thank you.


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