Speeches - (Archived) Table of Contents|
| Information Date:||01/11/2002|
| Presented To:||American Postal Workers Union|
| Speaker:||John L. Henshaw|
John L. Henshaw
First Annual Moe Biller Lecture
American Postal Workers Union
January 11, 2002
I am delighted to join you today to talk about workplace safety and health challenges ahead in light of the lessons we've learned over the past several months.
The world has changed.
The threat to workplaces in the United States is quite serious.
It's even more critical that labor, government and management work together to protect our fellow man.
I, for one, am very proud that we - OSHA and APWU have been able to work together so well on these crucial issues.
I know I'm stating the obvious when I say that workplace safety and health is important to all of us. As a professional, workplace safety and health is my life's work. Now workplace safety and health is a component of our homeland security. And OSHA is proud to be part of the team that President Bush and Governor Ridge have assembled to address this issue. We're prepared to take a leadership role as we've been asked to do.
The instruments of terrorism are not only on American soil, they are now in our workplaces, and APWU and the Postal Service have borne the brunt of these unprecedented, mail-borne terrorist attacks. This has been a costly battle, and the APWU and the Postal Service have remained strong.
We all know the facts. Letters laced with finely milled anthrax spores were sent along the U.S. East Coast. As a result, five people have died, including two postal workers. Thirteen other Americans have been diagnosed with anthrax and survived. The safety and health of our workers is in question and the public confidence in the safety of the mail has been threatened.
George Washington said in his Fifth Annual Address to Congress in 1793, "There is a rank due to the United States among nations which will be withheld, if not absolutely lost, by the reputation of weakness." The terrorists think they can prove us weak. Their intent is to undermine public confidence, disrupt harmony and create dissension. We will not allow them to do this. We will win this battle and assure the world that we are not weak, but strong. And we stand together.
The threat we have experienced since October is completely new to all of us. Throughout this crisis, OSHA's job has been to provide advice and counsel in protecting the safety and health of workers. With the concurrence of the U.S. Postal Service, our staff has visited every contaminated site. We've talked to your members. We've observed clean-up. We've offered the recommendations of our experts.
In the process, we've all learned a lot about this new threat and how better to protect ourselves. We're in new territory, but we've gained valuable lessons that we can use in the future. And we will come out of this stronger, healthier and safer.
The first lesson is perhaps the clearest: When dealing with the unexpected, collaboration is essential. Nothing like these anthrax mailings ever happened before. As a nation, we had a lot of questions that we did not have the answers to. And we learned -- and we're continuing to learn through experience -- what plans and procedures will be appropriate to address this new threat.
We didn't know exactly how anthrax spores would aerosolize. We didn't know how virulent the spores would be. We couldn't be certain who needed prophylactic treatment. We were not prepared to identify victims of anthrax disease until too late. We didn't know exactly what course anthrax illness would take or exactly how to treat those who became ill. We weren't certain how to decontaminate sites. We had trouble determining what to do once those who had been exposed completed antibiotic treatment.
In short, there were more questions than answers. And it takes time and hard work to figure out the puzzles and find solutions.
None of us were expecting bioterrorism in the workplace, and we were not prepared as we should be. But we have learned a lot and will apply that learning as we remain strong in this new world threat.
The second lesson also emphasizes the importance of collaboration - two heads are better than one. A new threat like anthrax transcends all boundaries. To deal with this threat, assure the safety of our workers and prevent the terrorists from succeeding, we need to work in close cooperation, across lines.
For OSHA that meant a bioterrorism taskforce that cut across individual offices within our own agency. NIOSH and CDC participated on that taskforce with our own staff. Others joined us from time to time.
OSHA also sent a staffer to the Postal Service Command Center to provide assistance and stay abreast of activities involving postal facilities. We worked with the Senate in the efforts to decontaminate the Hart building. We maintained ongoing contact with EPA, the FBI and the Food and Drug Administration.
To stay on top of events and properly assure safety and health, collaboration and communication is essential. It's essential that we maintain relationships and strengthen communications. We need to pool our resources and share our expertise.
Another lesson we've learned might fit the old proverb: circumstances alter cases.
Typically OSHA works with employers at sites they control. They usually know what the hazards are, and it's a matter of ensuring that workers are protected against these risks.
Terrorism is a completely different case. The hazards are not endemic to the workplace. They are unexpected and may be unknown. This is not a matter of ignorance of the law or neglect of responsibilities or poor maintenance or malfunctioning equipment. It's a matter of malice aforethought on the part of persons unknown.
That changes the climate. We find ourselves partners with both workers and employers in thwarting the goal of the terrorists -- to hurt and kill as many people as possible. Our role has been one of sharing our expertise on sampling, decontamination methods and personal protective equipment. This is "safety and health assistance" in the best possible sense.
Employers, workers and government stand together against a common enemy. And that's where we should be -- working jointly to benefit everyone. And while I hope we see no more terrorist attacks, I hope the spirit of cooperation they have inspired will continue -- between OSHA, the Postal Service and the APWU and beyond.
The fourth lesson is - as always : safety first. Keeping workers safe is our primary objective and our most important consideration. And that is, of course, the underlying reason for all that we have done.
Our major objective has been to be available to offer support and guidance -- both to the APWU and to the Postal Service and to other employers and workers. Our first thought is what needs to be done so that workers can return to work safely.
In respect to biological agents, workplace safety depends on the level of contamination, and the acceptable level of contamination is not known. Determining what is acceptable is going to require serious discussion and thought. These are trying times and making these decisions will try our ability to work together.
Regardless, if a workplace is seriously contaminated or faces minimal risk, government, employers and workers must work together to resolve the issues.
OSHA has received many questions. How can we determine what risks we face? When do workers need to wear personal protective equipment? What equipment do they need? Where can we go for detailed information on specific questions?
In mid-November, OSHA issued a matrix to guide employers in assessing risk to their workers, providing appropriate protective equipment and specifying safe work practices. The color-coded anthrax matrix covers low, medium and high risk situations. It's available on OSHA's website along with many other materials useful to employers -- particularly those who have mail handling operations.
Our website includes a fact sheet on glove use and frequently asked questions as well as links to other sources of information, including USPS materials. We're working on an interactive e-tool that employers or employees can use to determine necessary steps to take to address anthrax risks at their specific sites. All of these steps represent our best effort to fulfill our role as the authoritative government source for worker safety and health in the U.S.
Finally, the fifth lesson we've learned from the anthrax crisis is be prepared. We now know that terrorist attacks are a very real possibility. We know we need to plan today to defend ourselves tomorrow. OSHA needs to help employers and workers prepare to meet whatever comes our way.
To do that, we are developing a coordinated approach to workplace preparedness. We will provide guidance on a variety of topics so that employers and workers will have plans in place to address any future terrorist actions -- biological, chemical, fire and explosion, whatever.
First on our agenda is information on emergency preparedness. Under OSHA standards, some employers are required to set up emergency evacuation plans and procedures. Others may choose to do so on their own.
To help them, OSHA is formulating generic guidelines on developing and implementing emergency evacuation plans. This information will soon be available on our website along with links to other documents that may prove helpful.
Terrorism changes the picture considerably for emergency plans. Normally, workplaces are concerned about potential fires, explosions and chemical spills -- and getting workers out of the building to escape these problems. A terrorist release of toxic gas or airborne disease may call for the opposite -- staying inside the building and avoiding exposure to outside air. OSHA's recommendations will provide a basis for employers to modify evacuation plans to prepare for possible terrorist attacks.
The second area we are concerned about is chemical security -- particularly materials stored in chemical manufacturing facilities. Several chemical trade associations have done excellent work, and we will build on their foundation and link to their materials.
We know our law enforcement agencies and many others in government are working diligently to thwart future attacks. But prudent employers and workers want to be ready just in case. We also need to have workers trained to handle decontamination should that be necessary.
Toward that end, OSHA and the Employment Training Administration last month announced a grant of $208,650 to the Laborers-AGC Education and Training Fund to develop a training program for workers who might get involved in decontaminating worksites.
With this grant, the Laborers will develop course materials to teach workers the safest and most effective techniques for remediating biological hazards such as anthrax. Once the curriculum is ready, the Laborers will pilot it with workers who have already been certified as hazardous waste workers. This will enable those workers to upgrade their skills and help the Laborers refine the curriculum.
After the initial workers are trained and the curriculum and training materials fine-tuned, the material will be shared with other organizations and institutions. We're thinking specifically of the 12 OSHA Training Institute Education Centers and state and local One-Stop centers.
Ladies and gentlemen, the past few months have been difficult for every American, but especially for postal workers who have continued to deliver the mail faithfully despite terrorist threats. I know I speak for my fellow citizens when I say thanks for all that you have done.
And I speak for health and safety professionals in OSHA and throughout government in telling you we want to see that you are well protected against any possible future terrorist attacks. Your safety comes first. We want to do everything we can to ensure that we're ready for the worst. We also know that because the nature of terrorism is surprise and delivering the unknown, we will always be living with some uncertainty. This uncertainty will require a degree of coordination and collaboration that we are not accustomed to.
OSHA is committing to you today that we will work with you, your employers and other agencies and groups to assure worker protections. Count on us. We'll deliver for you.
|Speeches - (Archived) Table of Contents|
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