Statement of David Michaels, PHD, MPH, Assistant Secretary, Occupational Safety And Health Administration, U.S. Department Of Labor before the Committee on Education and the Workforce, Subcommittee On Workforce Protections, U.S. House Of Representatives

October 7, 2015


Chairman Walberg, Ranking Member Wilson and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for inviting me here today. As Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), I am honored to testify before you about the important work the Department is doing to assure the health, safety and dignity of America's workers.

The Obama Administration is committed to helping workers reach and stay in the middle class by getting and maintaining good jobs. Workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities stand in the way of workers earning a living wage. Today's sad reality is that many workers, and the families they support, are one job injury away from falling out of the middle class.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970, employers have the responsibility to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards. The law gives us a range of tools and strategies and OSHA attempts to apply them in ways that will be most effective and efficient.

Working together, OSHA, our state partners, employers, unions, and health and safety professionals have made great strides in reducing the incidence of workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities. In 1970, an estimated 14,000 workers were killed on the job, an annual rate of 18 per 100,000 or about 38 workers killed on the job every day. Today, with a workforce almost twice as large, that rate has fallen to 3.3 per 100,000, or about 13 workers killed every day. Injuries and illnesses also are down dramatically -- from 10.9 per 100 workers per year in 1972 to less than 3.3 per 100 workers in 2013.

OSHA's safety and health standards -- including rules for asbestos, fall protection, cotton dust, trenching, machine guarding, benzene, lead and bloodborne pathogens -- have prevented countless work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths. For example, OSHA's 1978 Cotton Dust standard helped drive down the rates of brown lung disease among textile workers from 12 percent to 1 percent. Since OSHA enacted the grain handling standard in the late 1980s, there has been a significant reduction in grain explosions resulting in far fewer worker injuries and deaths. In addition, since OSHA revised the excavation and trenching standard in 1989, there has been a twenty-two percent drop in fatal trenching injuries, even as construction activities have increased by twenty percent. Finally, OSHA's Bloodborne Pathogens Standard and the Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act have helped reduce Hepatitis B infections among healthcare workers by 90 percent.

While this represents great progress, 13 deaths a day is still 13 too many families devastated by the loss of a family member. Furthermore, over the last two decades, the rate of fatal work injuries has reached a plateau and is no longer decreasing as dramatically as it had in earlier years. The preliminary Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries results released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) last month show the number of fatal work injuries was 4,679 in 2014, a 2 percent increase over the revised count of 4,585 in 2013. This increase was concentrated in a several particularly hazardous industries.

In addition to workplace fatalities, according to BLS, last year employers recorded almost 4 million serious job related injuries among private and public sector workers on the injury and illness logs that OSHA requires them to maintain. It is now widely recognized that this statistic, although alarmingly high in itself, is an underestimate, and the actual number of workers who are injured on the job annually is substantially higher.

Workplace injuries and illnesses cause an enormous amount of physical, financial and emotional hardship for individual workers and their families. Combined with insufficient workers' compensation benefits, these injuries and illnesses can not only cause physical pain and suffering but also loss of employment and wages, burdensome debt, inability to maintain a previous standard of living, loss of home ownership and even bankruptcy. At the same time, costs to employers of workplace injuries and illnesses are also substantial, including workers compensation payments, decreased productivity and the costs of replacing injured workers.

These harsh realities underscore the urgent need for employers to provide a safe workplace for their employees as the law requires. That is why OSHA continues extensive outreach and strong enforcement campaigns and will continue to work with employers, workers, community organizations, unions and others to make sure that all workers can return home safely at the end of every day.

I want to briefly describe the work that OSHA has been doing to accomplish this end and improve the safety and health of all American workplaces.