Speeches - Table of Contents Speeches - Table of Contents
• Information Date: 10/19/2010
• Speaker: David Michaels

Remarks by
Dr. David Michaels
Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health

Pennsylvania Governor's Occupational Safety & Health Conference
Hershey, Pennsylvania
Tuesday, October 19, 2010


"OSHA: Fighting For Workers' Lives"

Thank you, Doug, for your introduction and for inviting me to be part of your state conference here in Hershey. Your promotional material notes that this conference has been held for more than 80 years. This longtime commitment to workplace safety is remarkable and admirable and I'm proud to be here with you.

One of the reasons I'm here today -- why all of us are here today -- is because Carl Beck Jr. can't be here. Carl Beck was a construction worker who was killed when he fell more than 40 feet from a roof in North Strabane, in Washington County, here in Pennsylvania.

His employer, C.A. Franc, failed to use safety equipment even after a number of workers spoke up and said the job was dangerous. The boss didn't care. Carl paid the price, and so did his family. This young man, just 29 years old, with his whole life ahead of him, left behind a fiance and a three-year-old boy. Three months after Carl's death, his fiance gave birth to another boy -- who will never know his father.

This worker's death was foreseeable and preventable and never should have happened. OSHA fined Carl's employer more than half a million dollars for knowingly and willfully failing to protect his workers. With the help of the Department of Justice, his employer was brought up on criminal charges for willfully violating OSHA regulations. Mr. Franc pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months' house arrest and three years' probation.

These enforcement actions won't return Carl Beck to his family, but they do send a stern reminder to other employers that they are legally responsible for protecting their workers -- with training, protective equipment and following the rules to abate hazards -- and when employers ignore their responsibilities, OSHA will come down hard.

We're also here because of unsafe working conditions in three United States Postal Service centers here in Pennsylvania. This summer OSHA fined these centers almost $800,000 for electrical hazards that could have seriously injured or killed workers.

OSHA inspectors found that employers in one postal facility in Pittsburgh and two in Philadelphia willfully violated the law by exposing workers to potentially deadly hazards -- including shocks, burns and electrocution -- because safety and health standards were not followed.

For example: In the Pittsburgh facility, the employer failed to provide adequate electrical hazard training for workers, failed to provide workers with equipment to protect them from arc-flash hazards, and failed to use appropriate safety signs, safety symbols or accident prevention tags to warn workers about electrical hazards.

We cited the Pittsburgh postal facility's employer with four willful citations -- that is, violations committed with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for workers' safety and health. These workers could have been seriously hurt or killed, and their employers know better.

And just a few months ago, over in the town of Blandon, we fined Kief industries more than half a million dollars for exposing workers to hazardous levels of lead, which can cause brain damage, paralysis, kidney disease... and death.

We cited the company for not taking air samples as required, for not providing annual training about lead-exposure hazards as required, and for failure to conduct tests to protect workers from overexposure to noise... as required.

There's no excuse for this!

So -- we are here today to honor the memory of these workers whose deaths were preventable, and we are here to acknowledge all the other workers in Pennsylvania who have been exposed to potentially deadly hazards. We are here at this conference to learn how to recognize and minimize hazards at work before any more people get hurt or killed.

OSHA: Back to Basics

When the new administration came aboard in the Department of Labor last year, 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.

To make a greater impact on our workplaces, significant changes had to be made in OSHA. The Department of Labor and OSHA have made it clear over the last year that OSHA has returned to the original intent of the OSH Act that created the agency 40 years ago.

In a move "back to basics," we are focused on establishing up-to-date workplace safety and health regulations based on strong science, emphasizing fair enforcement of standards. 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.

The Department of Labor's strategy is summarized as "Plan, Prevent and Protect." The Secretary's vision for our nation's workforce is "Good Jobs for Everyone." From OSHA's perspective, only safe jobs are good jobs, and the only way to make jobs safe for everyone is for employers to Plan, Prevent and Protect their workers every single day.

And when employers fail to live up to their legal obligation to protect their workers, OSHA will use all its powers of enforcement to see that they do.

Enforcement Activities

In the past year, OSHA has stepped up its enforcement actions to deliver an effective deterrent, convincing employers to abate hazards before workers get hurt.

In Fiscal Year 2010, which ended September 30, we conducted more than 34,000 safety and 6,600 health inspections, surpassing the goal we set for ourselves at the beginning of the year. This is a remarkable achievement, since we diverted significant enforcement resources over many months to ensuring the protection of workers engaged in the Gulf Coast cleanup operations.

During the last fiscal year, we issued more egregious and significant cases than 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 month, 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.

Here in Pennsylvania, because OSHA has been very concerned with the safety of workers in the oil and gas industry, we formed a regional emphasis program beginning in January of this year to inspect worksites in and around Erie, Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Wilkes Barre.

Over the last decade, OSHA's Harrisburg Area Office has also investigated several combustible dust explosions. This is a hazard that many people do not understand. You can learn about it in this conference at a workshop offered by Matt Bole, OSHA's Assistant Area Director in Harrisburg. OSHA's Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program began in Harrisburg; now we're working to educate employers and workers across the country.

OSHA is stepping up enforcement in other ways. In June the Agency 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 Severe Violators Enforcement 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 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.

We are also working with the state plans to increase their penalty levels. As low as federal OSHA penalties are, the average penalties in many of these 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.

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.

Over the longer term, good safety and health management translates into efficiency, productivity and profitability for individual establishments. Preventing worker injuries saves on a host of costs, spurring workers to be more engaged, enhancing a company's reputation, and, overall, contributing to a stronger national economy.

Injury Tracking and Reporting

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

As you all know, OSHA requires many employers, especially those in high-hazard industries, to keep records of workplace injuries. While this information is certainly useful to OSHA, the primary value of this information is to allow employers and workers to investigate the causes of injuries and to prevent future injuries from occurring. Many responsible employers currently do so; unfortunately, many others do not. Employers who compile OSHA logs but do nothing with the information are missing an important opportunity to reduce injury and risk.

Even worse: If injuries are not recorded, they will not be investigated -- which is why OSHA is very concerned about the existence of incentive programs in some workplaces that appear to encourage working safely but in fact discourage workers from reporting their injuries.

We strongly disapprove of programs that offer workers parties and raffle prizes for not reporting injuries, or programs that award managers large bonuses for driving down their injury rates, or programs where workers are disciplined for reporting an injury. The immediate effect of these programs is to discourage injured workers from reporting their injuries. This affects not only the injured worker who may not be eligible for workers' compensation benefits unless filing a claim, but all workers -- because the causes of an unreported injury will not be investigated and nothing can be learned to prevent future injuries.

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.

We were pleased to learn earlier this month that the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants' Association, which includes many of the country's large employers, supports OSHA's position and opposes incentive programs that offer rewards for not reporting injuries.

Not all safety incentive programs are bad. Some employers have 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. These employers have a better understanding of injury and illness prevention programs. They recognize that focusing on positive behavior will be more productive for a company than punishing workers who report injuries.

OSHA is trying to learn more about the workings of incentive programs. If you are involved in a program you think is either effective or ineffective, let us know. Send a note to me or to your local OSHA office.

With the help of our state plan partners, OSHA has initiated a Recordkeeping National Emphasis Program to identify and correct under-recorded and incorrectly-recorded worker injuries and illnesses on the OSHA Form 300. In the inspections we have conducted so far with high-hazard establishments, we found recordkeeping violations in almost half the inspections.

In August 2010, we issued egregious willful citations for recordkeeping violations against an employer in Houston for a proposed penalty of $1.2 million. The company's practice of "redlining" reports -- that is, substituting the company's criteria in place of OSHA recordkeeping requirements -- resulted in gross underreporting of injuries and illnesses.

The lesson here is simple: Keep accurate, complete records and use this information to improve your workplace. Don't "cook the books."

Injury and Illness Prevention Programs

Enforcement is most effective as a deterrent, but OSHA is looking at the bigger picture as we seek ways to change the culture of workplaces so that employers and workers cooperate with a focus on prevention.

Earlier this year we began pursuing the development of a rule requiring employers to implement an Injury and Illness Prevention Program. This rule would require employers to take an active approach to ensure healthful and safe working conditions for their workers -- focusing on all recognized hazards, not merely ones for which OSHA has standards.

An Injury and Illness Prevention Program involves planning, implementing, evaluating, and improving processes and activities that protect worker safety and health.

We have concluded five stakeholder meetings around the country with significant participation by employers and labor unions. We are eager to move forward to the next stages of the rulemaking process on this critical issue.

The idea of an Injury and Illness Prevention Program is hardly new. Here in Pennsylvania, your Department of Labor and Industry's Bureau of Workers' Compensation encourages employers to create state-certified workplace safety committees. These committees have at least two employer and two worker representatives meeting monthly to address workplace hazards in a systematic manner.

Your state bureau offers a great incentive to work together on prevention: Certified workplace safety committees qualify for a 5 percent discount on workers compensation premiums. I'm told that there are more than 9,000 initially certified committees covering more than 1.2 million Pennsylvania workers, and that deserves a round of applause!

The thousands of best workplaces in America that already have Injury and Incentive Programs have seen the beneficial results for themselves -- high efficiency, greater worker productivity and lower costs that make their workplaces strong 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 -- and we know that Injury and Illness Prevention Programs fail if workers aren't at the table as full participants.

Regulatory Activities

I have stated that OSHA is on the move, and this is apparent as we advance with an aggressive regulatory agenda.

After years of work, this year we issued a historic standard to protect workers operating cranes and derricks. This standard, which takes effect November 8, is expected to save many lives and prevent many injuries each year.

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 employers -- especially owners of small businesses who want to do the right thing for their workers. OSHA wants to help.

I want to remind business owners to take advantage of the state-operated On-site Consultation Program. Nearly 800 employers in Pennsylvania used this service in the last year to obtain free, confidential advice. These are employers who decided not to wait for a worker tragedy to happen or for OSHA to come knocking on their doors. They sought professional help to keep their workplaces hazard-free, efficient and productive. Good for them!

Occupational safety and health experts here in Pennsylvania 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.

Sam Gualardo directs your state On-Site Consultation Program. I urge you to get to know him and ask how the service can help your company.

It's worth noting, too, that the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce is the second largest state Chamber in the United States. OSHA and the Pennsylvania Chamber work together through a formal Alliance to provide employers with compliance assistance, including access to workplace safety training and education programs through its Web site. Each year our Alliance offers roundtable sessions to help employers, their safety managers and workers with professional and business development. This is a true win-win situation for everyone working together to make workplaces free of recognized hazards.

Also: this summer OSHA signed a two-year Alliance with the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association to promote and improve worker safety and health in the Appalachian Basin oil and gas industry. Through this Alliance, OSHA and the Association will work together to enhance training and educate association members about OSHA regulations and industry standards.

For example, as a result of two workers who were killed in July in an explosion at an oil and gas well in Cheswick, near Pittsburgh -- Kevin Henry, 46 years old, and Andrew Yosurack, who was 54 -- the Association's Safety Committee members met last month and decided to work with OSHA through our Alliance to develop and present a safety training session for Association members. This training is being developed in reaction to a workplace tragedy. We hope it will instill more thinking about prevention and saving future lives.

What we want most of all is for companies and trade associations to anticipate catastrophes -- to look for hazards and reduce risk before someone gets hurt.

Outreach to immigrant workers

OSHA is also continuing to reach out to Spanish-speaking workers, who are injured and killed on the job in disproportionate numbers nationwide. We want to be sure that these workers, who often have limited literacy, are not exploited by unscrupulous employers. The fact is, when irresponsible employers under-pay, under-train and under-protect immigrant workers from workplace hazards, this puts responsible employers at an unfair disadvantage, and this is unacceptable.

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

Here in Pennsylvania, OSHA staff has been working through the Mexican Consulate to provide workplace safety and health information to Spanish-speaking workers in the construction, restaurant and farming industries.

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, when Secretary Solis and I 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, the Secretary, who speaks Spanish, asked some workers about the safety and health training they had just received from their employer. One worker responded, in Spanish, that he didn't really understand much of the training, which had been provided in English.

So, be sure your worker training is provided in a language that they can understand. To help you comply with this requirement, I encourage everyone to use the Spanish-language resources on OSHA's Web site.

This year, OSHA's Susan Harwood Training Grant program has provided funding to an unprecedented number of community-based worker organizations, including many representing Latino, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and other vulnerable workers. Our new Pilot Grants will enable groups that have never been involved in health and safety issues to develop programs that can provide knowledge and tools that their members need to stay safe and healthy on the job.

Pennsylvania's Health and Safety Training Institute

I want to acknowledge the work of a recently retired Division Chief for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. Since 2004, the Health and Safety Division has been managed by Len Negley. Len worked long and hard to create the Pennsylvania Safety and Health Training Institute, which I have learned is nearly ready to launch under the auspices of the Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

The Bureau will have plenty to say about the new institute, so I will simply add my thanks along with everyone here for the legacy that Len is leaving the workers and employers in this great Commonwealth. The institute will promote health and safety services and programs offered by various agencies as well as national organizations such as the National Safety Council, NIOSH and OSHA.

And because many companies do not fully understand the value of a positive safety culture, nor how to develop one, the Health and Safety Division recently developed a Safety Culture training class. This training focuses on the enhancement of a workplace safety culture, examining techniques for companies to create and maintain safer workplaces and communities.

Distracted Driving

Year after year, the leading cause of worker deaths is motor vehicle crashes. Distracted driving dramatically increases the risk of such crashes. To tackle this problem, the Department of Labor is partnering with the Department of Transportation to take encourage employers to join us in combating distracted driving.

Earlier this month, we launched an initiative that includes:

  • an employer awareness campaign focusing on the great and growing danger of sending text messages while driving

  • a distracted driving Web site for sharing information and strategies, including model employer policies

  • a special emphasis on reaching young workers

  • an enforcement component: When OSHA receives a credible complaint that an employer requires texting while driving or who organizes work so that texting is a practical necessity, we will investigate and where necessary issue citations and penalties to end this practice.

To all companies whose workers drive on the job, OSHA's message is straightforward: It is the employer's responsibility and legal obligation to have a clear, unequivocal and enforced policy against texting while driving.

Reforms on the Horizon

This morning I've outlined for you many initiatives that OSHA has taken over the last year and a half to return the Agency to its core mission: Assuring the safety and health of America's working men and women.

The new push for updated standards and strong enforcement is the foundation of our efforts to Plan, Prevent and Protect workers in the short term. In the long term, broader reforms are needed -- particularly ways, such as requiring Injury and Illness Prevention Programs -- to change the culture of workplaces.

Other reforms are coming as we seek ways to bring this 40-year-old agency up to date to serve the needs of a 21st century workforce.

A major change needed now is strengthening our penalties. It's astonishing that in its four decades of service, OSHA's penalty structure has never been adjusted to keep up with inflation. Without meaningful penalties, including higher penalty limits and the threat of arrest and imprisonment for the worst offenders, rogue employers will continue to gamble with their workers' lives -- with terrible consequences.

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?

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, which is also under review in Washington. These two bills 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.

Moving Forward

I hope I have given you a clear snapshot of OSHA's very busy agenda. OSHA and the Department of Labor are working to end the mayhem in our workplaces and to remind employers to make every job a safe job.

I want to thank Conference Chairman Doug Dvorchak once again for inviting me to join you, and Governor Ed Rendell and your state Secretary of Labor and Industry Sandi Vito for their leadership.

I encourage our Alliance partners to continue working with OSHA to reach out to employers and workers with information and training that can prevent workplace tragedies.

I congratulate everyone who is taking one or two days to participate in this conference.

Now, let me leave you this morning with this final thought:

When we look at the Gulf Coast oil spill, the Big Branch Mine tragedy, the Tesoro refinery fire in Washington State, the Kleen Energy plant explosion in Connecticut, and any of the worker deaths here in Pennsylvania -- we must not think of these as isolated incidents or random events. Far from it.

Collectively, these are worker safety and health issues. They point to a disturbing pattern of deadly neglect that our nation has tolerated for too long as simply "the cost of doing business" -- and today we all need to stand up and declare that the price is too high!

OSHA can't reverse this deadly trend alone. We 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.

Finally, we need to make worker safety a household word and discussion at every kitchen table across America.

The massive egg recall dominating the news last month reminds us that Americans are intensely concerned about their health, the environment and sustainability of our social and economic infrastructure. When we go into the supermarket, we see cage-free eggs and free-range chicken products because consumers have cared enough to demand them; but sometimes it seems that not enough people care about the injuries and illnesses suffered by workers, often in deplorable workplaces, who prepare those chickens.

It may surprise the public to learn that earth-friendly products and services can maim and kill the workers who deliver them.

Here's another example: Some places in the country offer tax exemptions for buildings using materials favored by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)'s LEED rating system. However, environmentally friendly building materials aren't necessarily safe for workers. Polyurethane spray foam insulation, often used to reduce energy costs in LEED and other green buildings, emits highly hazardous fumes during installation. To prevent adult-onset asthma in exposed workers, contractors must follow OSHA requirements for safe handling of these toxins.

So... we need to bear in mind that along with our enthusiasm for leaving behind the smallest possible carbon footprint, we need to make sure that workers can't lose an arm, a leg, or their lives.

We need to work together to raise the level of awareness in our country -- to remind Americans at every turn that they should be concerned for their workers every bit as much as they are for their free-range chickens, their organic-fed fish, their oil-free beaches, and their energy-efficient buildings.

America doesn't need more refinery explosions, trench cave-ins or factory fires. We need more companies —

  • acting responsibly and following the law;

  • giving their workers training and protective equipment;

  • providing OSHA with accurate reports when workers are injured or taken ill, and

  • pursuing a culture of safety and health on the job every day of the year.

Thank you.


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