Remarks by Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor For Occupational Safety and Health, at the Center for American Progress.
Washington DC
Thursday, April 21, 2011

Good morning, and thank you, John [CAP President John Podesta] for that warm introduction.

Forty years ago, the U.S. Congress and President Richard Nixon created a new law dedicated to a series of radical propositions:
  • that all workers deserve a safe workplace
  • that workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities are not just "Acts of God," but that they are preventable
  • that workers should not have to choose between their lives and their jobs.
Passed with bipartisan support, President Nixon called the Occupational Safety and Health Act "…one of the most important pieces of legislation… ever passed by the Congress of the United States."

Dr. Morton Corn, appointed by President Gerald Ford to run the agency, described OSHA as "the instrument of a revolutionary law… a new right in the Bill of Rights — the right to a safe and healthful workplace."

It is hard to believe: Before OSHA, workers in America did not have the basic human right to a safe workplace.

Pre-OSHA reality is captured by the phrase, "occupational hazard"

Passing the OSHA law was a historic moment of national reform. Sixty years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the Federal government stepped in because neither state and local government, nor the workers' compensation system, had succeeded in addressing the carnage in the workplaces of that era.

Before OSHA, when a worker was killed on the job, perhaps there was an investigation; perhaps there wasn't. There was no legal compulsion to fix the problem so that another worker didn't face that same risk the next day.

When a worker died of an occupational disease, often many years after exposure, it was just one of those unfortunate things that workers and their families had to live with.

Workers did not even have the right to know the names and hazards of the chemicals to which they were exposed.

That pre-OSHA reality is captured by the phrase "occupational hazard" — a hazard that just comes with the job; there's nothing you can do about it.

This nation has made great progress since that time. Worker deaths in America are down — from perhaps 14,000 in 1970 to 4,400 in 2009 — in a workforce that has doubled in size.

Reported injuries and illnesses are down — from 10.9 incidents per 100 workers in 1972 to less than 4 in 2009.

Some of this decline was due to the shift in our economy from manufacturing to service. But, clearly, much of our progress is due to tougher government standards and greater awareness of workplace safety practices brought about by OSHA.

Most occupational deaths happen one at a time

Despite this progress, there is still much work to be done. This month also marks the first anniversary of the death of 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, the seven killed at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington and the 29 who were killed at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. All these followed only a few years after the death of 12 workers at the Sago mine in West Virginia, 14 killed at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Georgia, and 15 at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas.

These are the few workplace tragedies that have been chronicled in the national headlines, but they don't tell the whole story. Every day in this country an average of 12 workers are killed on the job — a Deepwater Horizon or a Sago every day, an Upper Big Branch every other day.

If a Deepwater Horizon or a Sago-like disaster was on the seven o'clock news every evening, there would be a public outcry. But because these 4,400 deaths a year usually happen one at a time, in different towns large and small across the country, they rarely make headlines, they are rarely noted, and they drive no change.

Even less visible are the more than 3 million workers who suffer a serious job-related injury each year, and tens of thousands more who develop a serious job-related illness — an illness that can quickly throw a family out of the middle class.

The walls of OSHA's main conference room are lined with the photographs of workers who have lost their lives on the job. These are photographs contributed by family members who want their loss to have some meaning, to ensure that these tragedies will not be visited upon other families. They understand, and we understand, what's most important: that these deaths and injuries are preventable
  • Preventable by basic safety precautions such as providing a safety harness and line to catch workers when they fall off a roof, shoring up a trench to make sure it doesn't collapse, or guarding a machine so it doesn't cut off a worker's hand.
  • Preventable by simple compliance with OSHA standards.
In the late 1980s, OSHA enacted a standard to protect workers in grain handling facilities from dust explosions. Since then, grain explosions have declined 42 percent, worker injuries dropped 60 percent, and worker deaths fell 70 percent.

OSHA's Cotton Dust Standard drove down rates of brown lung disease among textile workers from 12 percent to 1 percent.

Since we began, worker exposures to asbestos, lead and benzene have been dramatically reduced, and in the last decade new standards have helped shield healthcare workers from needlestick hazards and bloodborne pathogens.

We do have that program

Yet I never cease to be surprised at how, 40 years after the law was passed, many Americans still do not know what OSHA does.

A recent study of low-wage earners in the Chicago area found that 1 in 5 had suffered an injury or illness on the job, almost a third never received proper safety training, and more than half the workers surveyed had never even heard of OSHA.

At a forum just last week, a policy maker asked: Why doesn't OSHA have a free service to give small businesses information and assistance before they are cited for violations? — Well, we do have that program! We provide free on-site assistance to 30,000 worksites a year.

The empirical evidence is clear: OSHA doesn't kill jobs; it stops jobs from killing workers.

Despite this evidence, and despite the progress we have made, we are today engaged in a great debate over worker protections, over the benefits and costs of regulations, over the taxpayer dollars that this society is willing to invest to ensure that our nation's workers will be able to come home safely after a hard day's work.

Our challenge, every day, is how to make this 40-year-old law work effectively in today's economy.

In the past 40 years, the face of working America has changed dramatically. Industrial work and its hazards are still with us, but today we face a growing number of hazards in the service sector.

We struggle to ensure that programs of the best employers are recognized and emulated, while trying to improve the tools we have to address conditions in high-hazard industries, and to change the behavior of employers who still endanger workers.

It isn't easy. OSHA standards have saved countless lives over the past decades, but the rulemaking process becomes ever slower. Old hazards remain inadequately addressed (and some of our chemical standards are truly antiquated) while our recognition of newer problems — such as ergonomic hazards, infectious diseases, and workplace violence — grows.

April 28 - Workers Memorial Day

OSHA fines, set by Congress, are too low to have much impact on many businesses. OSHA and our state partners have about 2,200 inspectors to address hazards in more than 7 million American workplaces. And too many workers, including millions of public employees, remain in the dark, still without the legal right to a safe workplace.

The creators of the OSH Act attempted to ensure that workers have an important role in securing safe working conditions. But, sadly, the whistleblower language in OSHA's law is old and weak.

Far too many workers today don't know about the hazards they face and the legal rights they have, and far too many of those who do understand these problems do not feel safe raising these issues in their workplaces.

OSHA cannot face these challenges alone. We are working closely with representatives of labor and business, professional organizations and academics, and community and faith-based groups, to help us find new and better ways to protect workers.

I'm excited about some of the new approaches we are developing. OSHA is embarking on a fundamental new way to address safety and health in the workplace. Injury and illness prevention programs are a systematic process where all employers will be better able to identify hazards in their workplaces and find a way to fix those hazards before workers are hurt.

I say this is a "new" approach for OSHA, but it's not really new. OSHA first issued its health and safety program guidelines in 1989 — more than 20 years ago.

The standard that OSHA is currently working on is based on the long and successful experience of 15 states that have similar requirements, including California, Washington and Minnesota. Health and safety programs have been the core requirement of OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program and our SHARP program, which recognize those companies that excel in protecting their employees.

In the spirit of keeping workers safe and celebrating OSHA's 40th anniversary, I am honored that we are joined today by some of the nation's leading experts in workplace safety and health, along with two workers who are on the front line of workplace safety.

Before we get started with the rest of today's program, I wanted to take this moment to remind everyone that April 28 is Workers Memorial Day.

This is the day dedicated to the memory of workers who lost their lives on the job.

I'm proud to say that next week the Department of Labor will establish a long-overdue memorial to these workers by planting a tree on the grounds of the Frances Perkins Building.

The tree will be a permanent reminder of those workers we have lost, and it will serve as a call to action: that we must commit ourselves to address the many challenges still facing us today, to rededicate ourselves to the original promise of the Occupational Safety and Health Act — to ensure that all workers in the United States come home safely to their families after a day's work.

The spirits of those who died and those who lived to fight for better conditions urge us to meet these challenges and achieve the goals that all Americans strive for: Healthier Workers, Safer Workplaces, and a Stronger America.