OSHA's Barab: Angered by the "maddeningly slow struggle" (10/23)
“Now, it has been almost six months since Secretary Hilda Solis asked me to serve as Acting Assistant Secretary until a permanent Assistant Secretary is confirmed by the Senate.
”President Barack Obama has nominated a distinguished scientist at George Washington University, David Michaels, who not only has an impressive academic record, but also has led the worker health and safety program at the Department of Energy. At DOE, he was the father of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, which has provided billions of dollars to Cold War veterans who have contracted cancer and other diseases building this nation's nuclear arsenal.
”I know David well. We've been friends for many years and I know that he will bring to OSHA a renowned insight into the role of science in the regulatory process.
”OSHA isn't in a holding pattern while we await a new leader; there's too much to do and too many workers depending on us to make things right. When I accepted the opportunity to return to OSHA, Secretary Solis asked me to start moving forward right away to refocus the Agency on its original mission - to assure safe and healthful conditions for American workers by setting and enforcing strong, protective workplace standards.
”As I will relate to you today, after just a few months we are well on the way to doing that. But first, I want to tell you how much it means to be in this room with you today, back among my labor brothers and sisters.
“Utility workers, transportation workers, health care workers, teachers, public employees - these are the people who keep our Nation running. None of these workers does what Hollywood would portray as glamorous, nor are most of them paid well, but every one is essential to the life we enjoy in America.
”Also essential to our safety and health are the firefighters, police officers, nurses, air traffic controllers and pilots who put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe in the sky and on the ground.
”So why does it seem too much to ask that all employers provide these essential workers with safe workplaces or the right to organize into unions without being harassed or fired? After almost 30 years in this field, I find it astonishing, aggravating and insulting that we are still fighting these battles for basic workers' rights in far too many workplaces across our Nation.
”Progress has not come easy for workers in this country. Every incremental improvement in working conditions has been earned with blood and broken bones, in battles won and lost in thousands of workplaces and union halls across the country. Too many of those advances came too late, only after we counted the lives destroyed by workplace hazards that could and should have been prevented.
”As angry as I get about the sometimes maddeningly slow struggle for something as basic as protecting workers, I'm filled with hope when I see the dedicated worker and health and safety activists in this room.
”I didn't come back to OSHA just to make the agency better, I came back to ensure that American workplaces are safer and fewer workers are injured and killed in the workplace. A strong and effective OSHA is one means to that end; another, equally important means is a strong and knowledgeable labor movement, and that's a large part of the reason that you're here at this conference.
”In this modern era of workplace safety and health, we need to change our thinking in one critical way: We need to move from reaction to prevention and focus on problems before they can cause harm.
”This focus on prevention is very much on the mind of the new leadership in the Department of Labor and in OSHA as we take note that more than 5,000 people continue to die on the job in America every year. We must do more to reverse this deadly toll.
A return to strong enforcement
”Under this new administration, OSHA is heading back to the original intent of the OSH Act. We're back in the enforcement business and we're back in the standards-writing business.
”One of the first things I did after walking through the door at OSHA was to tell our field staff that we were abolishing the quotas that the previous administration had set for racking up new members of the Voluntary Protection Program and Alliances. It's not that we shouldn't be recognizing those companies and associations who are going beyond the basic requirements to make workplaces safe - we should support the best of the best. However, OSHA's first priority must be those employers who continue to cut corners and put their workers' lives at risk.
”One other thing I did when I first arrived was largely symbolic but nevertheless important. In OSHA's main conference room at the Department of Labor, one entire wall was filled with photos of OSHA staff managers - headquarters and field. As pleasant and good-looking as these people are, I had their pictures replaced with photos of workers who'd been killed on the job. The photos were lent to us by the husbands and wives, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers of workplace victims.
”OSHA must never forget who we work for. We must never forget that every day in this country 15 workers are killed on the job. All of us at OSHA must never forget to ask ourselves every evening as we go home: "What have we done today to make workplaces safer?"
”On a deeper level, to emphasize this agency's return to a focus on enforcement that pursues the worst violators, the agency has formed a task force to design a new enforcement initiative. The Severe Violator Enforcement Program is intended to concentrate resources on employers who have demonstrated indifference to their OSH Act obligations. Under this new program, any systemic problems that we identify with an employer's safety and health program will trigger additional, mandatory inspections to ensure compliance with workplace safety and health standards.
”OSHA will react quickly to troubling trends. Take, for example, the recent "Texas Sweep." Texas has the unfortunate distinction of seeing more workplace fatalities than any other state. For that reason, we launched a construction safety sweep in Texas this summer, bringing in inspectors from across the country. Almost 300 construction inspections were conducted between July 12 and August 7. Inspectors identified numerous instances of workers exposed to fall hazards while working from elevated work surfaces or from scaffolds. Workers were removed from the hazard of cave-ins while working in unprotected trenches and excavations.
”We expect the Texas program to be the first of many examples where a much more flexible and responsive OSHA will be able to respond to troubling trends that pop up around the country.
“Also, within the limits of our existing authority, OSHA is looking at ways to strengthen our penalty program. OSHA is moving in this direction not simply to punish, but to provide a real disincentive to those employers who accept worker injuries as "an unavoidable part of the cost of doing business."
”We also hope that higher OSHA penalties will be seen as an incentive to adopt an effective Safety and Health Management System that combines management leadership with worker participation.
New regulations, guidelines and directives
”Effective workplace safety and health standards are at the heart of OSHA's mission. This is why the new leadership in the Department of Labor and in OSHA has been working to reinvigorate more than 20 items on the Regulatory Agenda and get them moving again. Many of these have literally been sitting in drawers for the last several years while workers continue to suffer avoidable injuries, illnesses and fatalities.
”Since January 2009, OSHA has accelerated its efforts to develop long-awaited standards addressing hazardous exposure to crystalline silica, beryllium, and food flavorings containing diacetyl.
”We announced this spring a major new regulatory initiative to protect workers from combustible dust explosions, and we expect to issue an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking very soon.
”OSHA recently published a direct final rule for acetylene hazards and a final rule updating the personal protective equipment consensus standards.
”We are also close to publishing a proposed hazard communications safety rule to align OSHA standards with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Hazardous Chemicals. This will be OSHA's first major regulatory action under the new administration.
”In construction, we are committed to publishing a cranes and derricks standard. After that, our focus will be on issuing a final rule on confined spaces.
”OSHA is looking at all its programs and resources to ensure that we are placing proper emphasis and support where they're needed most.
”Over the past several years, the Government Accountability Office has issued two major reports that address the problems of oversight, documentation, and effectiveness of our cooperative programs, especially the Voluntary Protection Programs - "VPP." OSHA is reviewing these concerns and the GAO's recommendations for addressing them.
”We are also looking at the broader picture. With the involvement and support of our stakeholders, we are considering how our cooperative programs should fit into OSHA's overall goals and budget. Our aim is to strike a proper balance with our current - and necessary - emphasis on standards and enforcement.
”We have nothing against recognizing those companies that go above and beyond minimum health and safety standards; but in a time of scarce resources, this administration will put its energy and resources into those companies that need the most help and attention, not those already doing well on their own.
”OSHA will also look for hazardous situations where standards don't exist but are needed.
”If we're going to move ahead on more and better standards, OSHA needs to find ways to streamline the cumbersome, lengthy rulemaking process.
”However, while our standards and enforcement are necessary and essential, they are only the ground floor of a whole structure of strategies that keep people safe and healthy on the job. It's like a credit card where making only the minimum payment each month prevents you from getting hit with the worst fines and fees, but it won't keep you out of trouble.
”We need to move beyond the traditional ways of measuring our progress, simply counting the number of standards issued, or counting the number of inspections conducted, or counting the amount of fines issued. Instead, we need to make the life of every working man and woman count, and we need to look at broader factors that contribute to occupational safety and health.
”In the future, we need to start examining the things that are hard to count but nevertheless make a fundamental and enormous impact on work in this country - such as the way work is organized and the impact of work hours, fatigue, and health and safety programs.”