Speeches - Table of Contents Speeches - Table of Contents
• Information Date: 03/07/2012
• Presented To: United Steelworkers Health, Safety and Environment Conference
• Speaker: David Michaels

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

2012 United Steelworkers
Health, Safety and Environment Conference
Pittsburgh, PA
Tuesday, March 7, 2012

Thank you, all, for inviting me to your conference. I'm very pleased to be here, and I bring warm greetings from Hilda Solis, the U.S. Secretary of Labor – along with the Department of Labor's commitment to her vision of "Good jobs for everyone."

I want to thank United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, and the Safety and Health staff led by Mike Wright. You should be very proud of their efforts to protect your members from workplace injuries and illnesses. This is a terrific staff -- including Jim Frederick, Nancy Lessin, Steve Sallman and Kim Nibarger – who do a great job on behalf of the USW.

Impact of OSHA

This year, OSHA is 41 years old. In the four decades since Congress created OSHA, the agency has made great progress. Before OSHA, approximately 38 workers every day were killed on the job across the United States; today, with a much larger workforce, the daily average is 12 -- which is still 12 too many. And every year, almost 4 million other workers suffer from serious occupational injuries and 50,000 more suffer from job-related illnesses.

OSHA is a small agency; with our state partners, we have fewer than 2,400 inspectors responsible for the health and safety of more than 130 million workers, employed at more than 8 million workplaces across the country -- which translates to about one compliance officer for every 59,000 workers.

Under this Administration, OSHA is using its limited resources as effectively as possible to carry out its mission. Our job isn't over -- there are still miles to go – but we've accomplished many things over the last three years, and I want to tell you what we've been doing.

First of all, we have strengthened OSHA's enforcement program, bringing more big cases with large fines that are getting employers' attention.

Justice for fallen workers

Carl Beck Jr. was a construction worker who was killed when he fell more than 40 feet from a roof in North Strabane, 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. 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 fiancée and a three-year-old boy. This worker's death was foreseeable and preventable and should never 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.

In the past three years, OSHA has raised penalties by reducing the amount of reductions we provide in negotiations with employers.

Still, OSHA's penalties are low and the maximum penalties haven't been raised in decades, and this makes it hard sometimes to have an impact on recalcitrant employers.

When a tank full of sulfuric acid exploded at the Motiva Enterprises oil refinery in Delaware, it killed Jeff Davis, a worker at the refinery. 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 EPA to assess a $10 million penalty for violating the Clean Water Act. How do we explain to Jeff Davis' wife Mary, and their five children, that the penalty for killing fish and crabs is so much higher than the penalty for killing her husband and their father?

Worker Outreach

To make a greater impact on the workers most in need of our help, we have significantly increased outreach to hard-to-reach and vulnerable workers – including those who don't have English as a first language. I don't have to tell you that these workers do the worst, most dangerous jobs in our country. We owe it to them to provide all the help we can to protect their rights, and we're not alone in this fight: The Steelworkers, for example, are helping the carwasheros in Los Angeles fight for decent pay and safe working conditions.

In 2010, OSHA organized a National Action Summit in Houston to address Latino worker health and safety, and 1,000 people showed up -- including steelworkers from Texas and Louisiana. The summit was tremendously successful as we worked with unions, employers, community groups and faith-based organizations to address the disproportionate work-related injuries and illnesses suffered by these workers.

On Thursday, April 26, we're holding another summit, this time in Los Angeles, and I hope some of you from California and neighboring states will join us to continue to help workers understand and exercise their rights to safe and healthful workplaces.

At the same time that we have been addressing the issue of vulnerable workers, we have also increased assistance for small businesses. Last year, the On-site Consultation Program assisted 27,000 small businesses protect more than 1,500,000 workers nationwide -- by helping employers to find and fix hazards in their workplaces. In our 2012 budget, we have increased support for this program.

Gulf Coast response and Heat Campaign

Across the country, we have brought to the attention of employers and workers the dangers of exposure to extreme heat.

Soon after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, we recognized that heat and fatigue were going to be significant issues for the more than 50,000 Gulf Coast cleanup workers -- and OSHA was on the scene as part of a multi-agency coordinated response. We were there, working with the Coast Guard and other agencies to make sure these workers were protected in the days, weeks and months that it took to rid thousands of miles of coastline from millions of gallons of spilled, toxic oil.

The cleanup workers were often on the job in protective gear, in very high temperatures and humidity. From the beginning, we insisted that BP implement strong and comprehensive protections from the heat, including rest breaks (40 minutes work, 20 minutes rest; in some situations, 20 minutes on and 40 minutes off), shaded rest areas, hydration liquids and sunscreen.

There were almost 1,000 close calls in situations where workers showed signs of dangerous heat exposure. I have no doubt that if we had not been there and insisted on these protections, there would have been deaths. We didn't get national TV coverage for our success, probably because we were so successful, and no cleanup workers died. But we did take a lot of flack, including phone calls from elected officials demanding to know why we weren't making these cleanup workers work harder. I explained: We didn't want to kill them.

Last summer we took what we learned from the Gulf and applied it around the country with a full-court press to save lives. Every summer hundreds of outdoor workers suffer serious heat-related illnesses, and dozens die from heat exposure. Nationwide last summer, OSHA conducted nearly 700 outreach activities, and distributed more than 180,000 heat hazard materials in English and Spanish. We partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue heat alerts to workers and employers across the country. In August, we introduced OSHA's first smart phone app, which proved amazingly popular. The app has been downloaded onto more than 12,000 phones. By our count, this campaign reached more than 2 million workers with the simple, life-saving message: "Water. Rest. Shade."

To top it off, we were very pleased when our heat campaign won an international award for excellence.

Whistleblower Protection

Last year OSHA and its state partners conducted more than 90,000 inspections of workplaces covering millions of workers. But OSHA can't be everywhere. We rely on you for help – you are the eyes and ears of OSHA -- to protect your co-workers.

To make sure that workers have the protection they deserve when exercising their health and safety rights, we have made great progress reinvigorating the Whistleblower Protection Program -- both by increasing staff and reorganizing the program to make it a much higher priority in the Department of Labor.

When OSHA said it had received an anonymous complaint about safety conditions at one of Brocon Petroleum's work sites in New Jersey, the company's executives had a pretty good idea who made the call. So, they fired the worker on the spot.

That's a clear violation of workers' rights under the OSH Act, so OSHA charged the employer with illegal whistleblower retaliation -- along with a list of safety violations found during the inspection. OSHA ordered the company to remove all mention of the event from the fired worker's record, give the ex-employee a positive reference, and pay the worker $7,500 in back wages. Despite a court order, the company refused to pay what it owed to the terminated employee.

Our response? U.S. marshals and OSHA took a page from the Repo Man's notebook and seized the company president's black Corvette. At auction, that shiny car brought enough funds to pay the whistleblower and recoup the agency's costs.

This shows that OSHA is serious about enforcing workplace safety and health standards, whistleblower protections, and workers' rights — including the right to complain to OSHA, to seek an OSHA inspection, to participate in an OSHA inspection, and to testify in any proceeding related to an OSHA inspection. That's the law.

When a worker is fired for reporting a hazard, this unabated hazard could endanger all workers on the site and it often endangers the public as well.

In January, we ordered AirTran Airways to reinstate a pilot who was fired after reporting numerous mechanical concerns. Can you imagine? This pilot was worried not only for his safety and the safety of his co-workers, but also for the flying public, where a mechanical problem could put many lives in peril. We're all glad this worker spoke up, and we sent this employer a very strong message: We ordered the company to pay that pilot more than $1 million in back wages, interest and damages.

Workers have to be able to report hazards, to say "this is a catastrophe waiting to happen." You may have noticed that I don't say "accident waiting to happen" because it's not an accident. It isn't random when someone gets hurt because an employer ignored a known hazard that can be abated by following established safety rules.

Recordkeeping and Incentive Programs

Investigating injuries, and learning from them, is one of the most important ways to prevent future injuries from occurring. Nothing can be learned from an injury that isn't reported.

Some companies have incentive programs that work both sides by discouraging workers from reporting injuries, while offering management huge bonuses for keeping their injury reports low. We've seen companies whose policies seem to work like this: If a worker is injured, management finds a safety rule to hold up and say the worker has broken that rule - "not paying attention," or "not working safely." This pretext is then used to fire the worker and intimidate other workers from reporting injuries or hazards.

Studies by the Government Accountability Office and others have noted that, in too many cases in this country, workplace safety incentive programs are doing more harm than good by creating incentives to conceal worker injuries. We disapprove of incentive programs that, for example, offer a pizza party or allow workers to enter a raffle for a new truck if they meet a goal of not reporting injuries over a period of time.

Programs like these, though often well intentioned, ultimately discourage workers from reporting injuries because they want to receive the reward. This is not what we want.

When worker injuries and illnesses are underreported, it only serves to conceal hazards that, unabated, continue to endanger workers' health and safety.

This is why we have recordkeeping requirements for injuries and illnesses on the job. They exist not so much to benefit OSHA, but to help employers and workers identify hazards that pose a threat to workers and to a company's productivity.

We are going to take on this problem. OSHA will take a very hard look at the situation when we hear about a worker being retaliated against after reporting an injury -- and here's what you can do to help: If you know of cases where workers are being retaliated against, or employers are not recording injuries -- call OSHA. Let us know. We just issued a large fine against an operator of a warehouse; we found about 40% of the injuries weren't reported, and we issued a fine of $283,000.

Global Harmonization

Here are other accomplishments from OSHA over the last three years:

We have issued two major standards -- making work safer for those who work in shipyards, on cranes, and for those who work with chemicals.

We're about to issue a third standard: Aligning our Hazard Communication standard with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (or GHS for short). I'm extremely pleased to announce that the publication of the final rule updating "Hazcom" is imminent. This final standard has been approved for publication and is currently at the Federal Register. This major update to our Hazard Communications standard has been decades in the making and will improve the quality and consistency of hazard information in the workplace, making it safer for workers to do their jobs. Soon you will begin to see new labels which will have pictograms -- simple warning statements and standardized hazard statements – so that no matter who makes the chemicals, the warnings will be the same.

The Steelworkers have supported OSHA throughout this effort by submitting comments and participating in our public hearings in Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh. In fact, Mike Wright, USW's Health, Safety and Environment Department Director, was involved in the early development of the GHS system in the 1990s. At our public hearing, the Steelworker panels provided needed insight into the inconsistency of information that is currently found at the workplace from the worker's point of view. In fact, the testimony by workers has helped shape our final rule.

David Irby, a union safety representative at the Severstal steel plant in Sparrows Point, Maryland, most eloquently stated at our hearings in D.C. that this new standard will now give workers the "right to understand."

Beryllium

We are also working closely with the Steelworkers to address the workplace hazard of beryllium.

Beryllium is stronger than steel but lighter than aluminum, with many important, high-tech applications. It is a remarkable metal, but it can cause a chronic and sometimes fatal lung disease called chronic beryllium disease at microscopically low exposure levels. It also has been shown to cause lung cancer.

USW and Materion Brush -- the primary beryllium supplier in this country – have worked closely together to negotiate a model standard to protect beryllium-exposed workers, and early last month, sent it to OSHA as a joint recommendation.

During the Clinton Administration, when I was the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Health, DOE issued a beryllium standard far more protective than OSHA's. The DOE standard only covered workers in nuclear weapons facilities. OSHA, which has been working on a beryllium standard for years, welcomes this submission. We are now reviewing the model standard and are excited to explore how this joint effort between labor and industry may expedite our rulemaking process to ensure greater protections for the workers potentially exposed to beryllium.

Injury and Illness Prevention Program

Our next big effort is the injury and illness prevention rule. We've just begun the process of working on a rule that would require all employers to set up a process to manage hazards in the workplace before someone gets hurt. This is just common sense. And an Injury and Illness Prevention Program involves workers in every step, because workplace safety has to be a cooperative effort. It begins with management leadership, but workers must have a role.

The basic idea behind this program is to change the workplace culture. It's not enough to think about complying with OSHA standards; it involves developing a process to figure out where the hazards are and fix them.

We are making some progress. I read a quote today where a management attorney described why he thinks it's a bad idea. He said: "That regulation would be a game changer, because it would require employers to have an ongoing, investigative, preventative process in place instead of being reactive [and addressing problems after an accident occurs]."

This preventive approach is exactly why OSHA -- and responsible employers and unions and workers and safety professionals – all think it's a good idea!

No doubt, this program will be controversial -- because every OSHA standard is controversial.

Regulations save lives

Every time OSHA attempts to issue a standard, we hear the same thing from some employers and their trade associations: "A new standard will cost too much." "It will put us out of business." "It will destroy the industry."

This argument is predictable, and it's generally wrong.

Vinyl chloride is a powerful example. After 5 workers at the same Kentucky factory were diagnosed with angiosarcoma, a rare liver cancer, OSHA sought to reduce worker exposure to the cause of the cancer: vinyl chloride monomer, a chemical that is used to make the plastic that goes into hundreds of products.

When OSHA proposed a regulation to reduce worker exposure to vinyl chloride, manufacturers roundly denounced the rule, predicting that it would wreck the industry. On June 26, 1974, the New York Times quoted industry spokesmen saying that "the proposed standard was medically unnecessary, technologically unfeasible, and would lead to the loss of as many as 2.2 million jobs."

Yet, months after the 1975 vinyl chloride regulation went into effect, the magazine Chemical Week described an industry rushing to "improve existing operations and build new units" to meet increased market demand. The Sept. 15, 1976, issue reported that producers "have installed the equipment needed to meet the worker-exposure requirements set by [OSHA], but without inflating production costs to the point where PVCs growth might be stunted."

This is not a surprise. American engineers and manufacturers are the most innovative in the world. In developing technology to lower exposure, they significantly improved the vinyl chloride production process, simultaneously lowering costs and saving lives.

The Congressional Office of Technologic Assessment (OTA) confirmed that the vinyl industry actually spent only a quarter of OSHA's original estimate to comply with the standard. The new technology designed to meet the standard actually increased productivity.

Naysayers will think, "okay, the success of the vinyl chloride standard is an exception" but, actually, it's the rule. OTA examined eight OSHA standards and found in almost every case, the cost was a fraction of OSHA's estimate, and our standards did not have an adverse effect on the industry.

The fact is, sensible safeguards that require employers to protect their workers actually drive workplaces to become more efficient, more productive, more innovative, more competitive and more profitable.

Help from USW

In 41 years, OSHA has made a difference for the better, but we still have far to go, and we need your help. We need your help telling the truth: OSHA doesn't kill jobs. OSHA stops jobs from killing workers!

We'll need your help to create a national standard for injury and illness prevention programs. Speaking to the management people in this room, I know you already support this effort and I appreciate you being on our team. But, something else OSHA does comes into play here: OSHA standards and enforcement level the playing field. No one in this room wants to compete with the scofflaw companies that cut corners on health and safety. You are doing the right thing for your workers, your business and your industry, and you don't want to be undercut by companies that aren't.

So, stand with us on injury and illness prevention. It's going to make workplaces safer and it will help honest, reputable employers become more competitive. This is a message we need to be getting out to everyone, all across the country.

As you see, we've done a lot to make workplaces safer, and we have much, much more to do.

I want to thank you for supporting us. Like anyone, we always enjoy praise -- when it's deserved. But, if we're not doing our job, or not doing the job you expect us to do, we want to hear about this as well.

We're knee-deep in the political season, and politicians will be out all spring and summer campaigning. Here's what you can do when they ask for your support: Make workplace safety and health an issue. Ask every candidate for a commitment to safe jobs. Get every one of them on the record supporting a stronger OSHA and supporting our effort for a national Injury and Illness Prevention Program.

As we look ahead at the next four decades of OSHA success, I'm grateful for your support of our commitment to helping both workers and employers. Together, we all want the same thing: Healthier Workers, Safer Workplaces, and a Stronger America.


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