Skip to page content
Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
Bookmark and Share

Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
National Workers Memorial at the National Labor College
Silver Spring, Maryland
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Good afternoon. Thank you, President Sweeney, for that introduction. It is always good to be with someone who has dedicated his life to protecting the working families of this country.

I also want to thank Rich Trumka for his devotion and advocacy on important issues impacting American workers. And lastly, I want to congratulate Dr. Scheuerman for providing the leadership and steady hand in directing this unique institution.

It is truly an honor to be here at the National Labor College. I'm also proud to spend the day with our nation's labor unions. There is no doubt that knowledgeable, empowered workers mean safer workplaces. There is also no doubt that unionized workers are more knowledgeable and more empowered than those who are not able to organize.

Today we are here to officially open the grounds of the National Labor College Workers Memorial. It is appropriate that we dedicate this memorial at the National Labor College. Not only will this calm and quiet spot serve as a gathering place to pause and remember the men and women who have lost their lives while pursuing their livelihood, but it will serve as a reminder to future labor leaders about the important work workplace safety.

On Workers Memorial Day, we remember a different kind of fallen hero — the worker who leaves for work in the morning and doesn't come home in the evening. The story in the newspaper might be brief — man killed by fall, or worker crushed by machine. But there are stories of pain and loss behind the headlines that go on and on for lifetimes, and their ripple effects are enormous. What about the family member who received the phone call, the empty chair now left at the kitchen table, the empty space in the bedroom or the emptiness a child feels when mom or dad is no longer around? Or the sleepless nights for the co-worker that witnessed the accident, or the gut-wrenching feeling of the person who had to make the phone call to the family?

So, we gather today with these workers' families and friends, we mourn the loss of their loved ones, and we recommit ourselves to honor their memory. We pay tribute to them not only with noble monuments of enduring brick and stone but also with our daily commitment to do all we can to prevent the kind of tragedies that took these cherished souls from us. On this point we can all agree: No one in America should go to work fearful for their health and safety.

The government has a fundamental responsibility to protect workers from unsafe work places. Some argue that inspection, enforcement, and regulation are "inconvenient," but as we stand here today we're reminded of exactly what is at stake when we put ideology ahead of common sense regulation. When it comes to workplace protection, workplace health and workplace safety, let me be clear: the Labor Department is back in the enforcement business.

I know that some try to frame issues of worker safety as pitting workers against business. But we all know that the vast majority of American business owners care deeply about the health and safety of their workers. To many small businesses, the employees who work with them day in and day out are like family.

But there are a few that do not make worker safety and protection a priority. There should be no controversy around the simple idea that workers ought to be able to come home from work safe and sound. As we stand here today, we're reminded that not every worker comes home, and that leaves a family to wonder what life would be like if mom or dad was still with them.

American workplaces have become much safer since the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 established OSHA. The shocking number of injuries and deaths on the job that we saw almost 40 years ago are far lower today thanks to OSHA; but we are nowhere near the satisfactory level of safety and health that our working men and women deserve.

This nation was shocked when 12 workers were killed in the Sago Mine in 2006, when 14 workers were killed in the Imperial Sugar dust explosion in 2008, and when 15 workers died in the BP refinery explosion in 2005.

But what most people don't realize is that more than 15 workers are killed in the workplace every single day. Most of these workers are killed one at a time. These deaths don't generate headlines. In the United States last year, more than 4 million were injured, and 5,500 people died on the job. In addition to these deaths, the National Institute for Occupational Safety Health estimates that over 50,000 workers die every year from occupational diseases.

To me, that's more than enough evidence that we need to do better. We need to rethink our strategy when it comes to worker protection.

Over the last few years, we've seen an ideological response to worker safety and health that deemphasized enforcement and standards. And recent reports on the effectiveness of the previous administration's approach make clear that it's time for a change in direction.

Under my watch, enforcement of our labor laws will be intensified to provide an effective deterrent to employers who put their workers' lives at risk. OSHA and MSHA will be about workers — not voluntary programs and alliances. I take very seriously the report issued earlier this month by the Labor Department's Inspector General which found insufficient focus on making workplaces safer. The failings are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Can we do better? Si se puede!

So long as I am Secretary of Labor, the Department will go after anyone who negligently puts workers lives at risk. We are creating a new program, called the Severe Violators Inspection Program, which will ensure that workers are protected from negligent companies that don't take worker safety seriously.

Over the past 8 years, only 1 major health standard was issued by OSHA — and that was done under court order. OSHA will get back in the business of issuing standards that protect workers and strong enforcement of those standards. We stopped the previous Administration's delaying tactics in moving forward on a standard to protect workers against popcorn lung. And after more than a year's delay, we have announced the launching of the small business review process for diacetyl, a flavoring additive in popcorn that risks the health of workers.

We will not be controlled by ideology. Our regulatory principals are clear: Where workers are in danger, where mandatory regulations make sense, we will act.

I am announcing today that OSHA will begin the rulemaking on combustible dust. After the 14 tragic deaths in Port Wentworth, Georgia, last year, a bill passed in the House, moving forward on a combustible dust standard that is long overdue.

President Obama and I believe in strong enforcement of laws that protect workers, a strong federal role in protecting workplace safety and health, as the OSHA Act originally mandated.

After devastating mine disasters over the past few years, my department will focus on improving the health and safety of mine workers. One of the areas we are going to focus on is the disturbing increase in the incidence of occupational disease — particularly black lung disease. We will work hard to eliminate the scourge of black lung disease from our mining population. We also recognize that we must do more to ensure that miners understand their rights and responsibilities — including those who do not speak English as a first language. We will hold mine operators accountable for their responsibilities under the Mine Act and the MINER Act, and we will continue to make sure they understand the consequences of abdicating those responsibilities.

In order to make every workplace safe and healthy, the Department of Labor must continue to work with our partners across the country. These include employers, trade associations, labor unions, safety and health professionals, and individual workers. Strong enforcement of the law against employers means that we must ensure that employers have access to timely and useful information about how to prevent accidents before they happen.

I believe that the vast majority of American employers want to do the right thing.

The economic stimulus funds provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will support and improve America's infrastructure, putting tens of thousands of people to work improving our nation's roads, bridges, waterways and mass transit systems.

We will put people to work developing green energy, improving our electrical power grid, and reinforcing our federal infrastructure. We will send a loud and clear message to all recipients of recovery funds: If you want these funds, you need to make sure that your workplaces are safe, and you treat your workers fairly. And that's a message that will continue long after our economy recovers.

As our nation makes key investments to put people back to work, OSHA will strengthen enforcement by hiring an additional 36 inspectors to provide guidance training and outreach to employers and workers, and launch a new effort to collect information about injuries and illnesses in the construction industry. As part of its efforts to provide compliance assistance and outreach, OSHA will increase its efforts to protect our nation's workforce. OSHA will unveil a new web site with information in English, Spanish and other languages, and will also issue a number of new products for the recipients of Recovery funds, such as: a new QuickCard that emphasizes nail gun safety, guidelines on Controlling Silica Exposures in Construction, guidance for Safely Using Ethylene Oxide in Health Care, and Spanish translations of two important Safety and Health Information Bulletins: Compactor Rollover Hazards and Hazards Associated with Operating Skid-Steer Loaders. In addition, we will be reaching out to our communities through churches, organizations and consulates.

For the last 4 years, the Department of Labor and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mexico have worked together to improve worker safety. This agreement provided outreach, education and training to workers from Mexico in key sectors of the United States. As of January 2009 OSHA has signed 11 international Alliances with the Mexican Consulates and jointly produced and disseminated over 100,000 outreach materials in construction, falls in construction, hotels, landscaping, meatpacking and restaurants to reduce injuries and illnesses for Mexican workers in the US. Because of this relationship with Mexico, OSHA has been begun to work with the consulates of El Salvador, Columbia and Brazil to provide information and literature on workplace safety and health.

News about a swine flu outbreak here, in Mexico and in other countries has dominated the airwaves recently. There are many questions to be answered about the severity and spread of that outbreak, but I want to make clear to you today that the Department of Labor and OSHA stand ready to protect this country's responders: health care workers, border guards and other employees who are crucial to addressing this potential health threat.

OSHA has developed a number of materials with important information on protecting workers in a pandemic flu outbreak, and we have been consulting closely with the White House, Departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and others to make sure that those precautions are taken. We must work with our partners abroad and specifically with the Mexican government to ensure the health and safety of workers, both foreign and domestic.

As we dedicate the building of this monument to fallen workers, we rededicate ourselves to defending and enforcing the right that every working man and woman deserves a safe and healthful working environment. Thank you for all of your hard work and dedication on behalf of the working families of our country.

It is truly an honor to be your Labor Secretary.

Thank you.

 

# # #