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OSHA's first job is to assist, says Labor Secretary

August 24, 2001
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Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao outlined her philosophy governing regulatory agencies such as OSHA in a speech to the Labor and Employment Section of the American Bar Association on August 6:

  • "Traditional, command-and-control government action is becoming less relevant in an era where the number of adults who work entirely from their homes has grown by a third in the last ten years."

  • "Some people have suggested that we are 'easing' enforcement 'in favor' of compliance. They are dead wrong. Instead, we recognize a critical fact of the 21st century economy: that compliance assistance is a tool in the toolbox of enforcement strategy."

  • "Government should offer a helping hand to those who want to do the right thing, not just a heavy hand that distrusts the basically good intentions of most people."

  • "Moreover, government simply doesn't have the resources to ensure safe, healthy and fair workplaces on its own. At current funding levels, the federal government can inspect each workplace only once every 167 years."

  • "Even if we did have the resources, we still couldn't enforce every rule and regulation on the books. And that presumes, of course, that government has all the answers, at a time when increasing complexity and continuous change make all of us wrong at some point."

  • "Rather than march in and dictate?we need to take a cue from the private sector and 'listen to our customers'. "

  • "Too often, government regulations are a complex maze that frustrates compliance instead of encouraging it."

  • "It's an ancient principle of jurisprudence that 'Ignorance of the law is no excuse.' But that was before the Federal Register filled up entire libraries, and before most regulations required a J.D. degree and expertise in the Administrative Procedures Act to figure out."

  • "When we go after employers for violating regulations they never knew existed, especially when those regulations don't serve an obvious purpose, then the failure is on our end, not on the employer's."

  • "If we fail to educate employers as a predicate to enforcement, it's the workers who suffer - because we'll never catch every labor law violation."

  • "That's why I'm directing my senior staff to develop a more effective compliance strategy for our department, agency by agency."

  • "Instead of loading up employers with endless surveys and record-keeping requirements, we need to use the medium of the Internet to offer directed compliance courses to help employers make their workplaces safe and fair."

  • "If people refuse to comply with our laws and regulations, then we need to enforce them aggressively. If we have reason to believe that a particular industry is abusing its workers through willful non-compliance, then we need to go after them with targeted enforcement initiatives."

  • "But we need to do our part first, to make sure our laws and regulations are clear and well understood by the regulated community. We need to give employers, workers and unions a compliance roadmap that is easy to understand, easy to measure, and as easy as possible to implement."

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