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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez

Remarks By
Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez,
Workers Memorial Day,
Washington D.C.,
April 28, 2014

[as prepared for delivery]

Good afternoon everyone. Thank you David for that introduction and for the remarkable work you and your team do every single day.

We're here today because no one should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood, because a nation built on the dignity of work must provide safe working conditions for its people.

We're here because, as President Obama put it in the proclamation he issued today: "We must never accept that injury, illness or death is the cost of doing business."

The good news is that we have made historic strides in recent decades, thanks in large measure to the people in this room. It's always worth remembering that in 1970, the year OSHA was created, there were an estimated 14,000 workplace fatalities. That's a staggering number — think about it: it's more than one life lost every hour of every day — day and night, weekends and holidays. But today, with a workforce twice as large, that number has dropped to 4,628 — the second lowest annual total since BLS first conducted the census of fatal injuries in 1992.

But frankly, that's 4,628 too many. And so every single one of us, every morning when we wake up and our feet hit the floor, must commit ourselves more than ever to this cause.

Last week, I traveled with Assistant Secretary Joe Main to Morgantown, West Virginia for an historic announcement. We released the final Labor Department rule that will move us closer to ending black lung disease by limiting miners' exposure to coal dust. This was the culmination of decades of work, of rigorous scientific analysis, of outreach to all segments of the coal community — operators, labor, miners, and health professionals.

At the NIOSH facility where we made the announcement, there was one dominant, abiding sound you could hear in the room: the click-click-click of oxygen tanks attached to miners who struggle to draw every breath. If that wasn't compelling enough, there were the testimonials from miners suffering from black lung. One talked about how he would never be able to teach his grandson to play basketball. A widow talked about how black lung robbed her late husband of the things he loved — hunting, the mountains, even something as simple as walking down to the mailbox. Another man got so choked up that he couldn't finish his statement. All he could get out was: "I worked for 28 years... never really had any serious injuries... and now I can't work anymore."

We must do better by these proud people who have done so much to power our homes and power our economy. And now at long last, with this new rule, we're saying: enough. Going to work in the mines shouldn't be a slow death sentence. We have the tools to do something about this disabling, devastating but preventable disease — now, we're finally doing it.

And we can do it in a way that doesn't do harm to the coal industry. No matter what sector of the economy you're talking about, I categorically reject the false choice between job growth and job safety. Around the country, I've spoken to responsible employers who say we can and must have both. They know that their human capital is their most precious resource; they know that strong safety measures enhance their competitiveness. They know that when employers cut corners, it triggers a race to the bottom that hurts everyone.

When most Americans think about people dying at work, I think what they have in mind are dramatic, news-making industrial accidents like Upper Big Branch or the explosion at the West, Texas fertilizer plant a year ago. But silent killers like coal dust and other chemical hazards that will be discussed later today are some of our most urgent workplace safety challenges.

That's why we are working so hard to protect workers from the dangers of inhaling crystalline silica dust. We are in the process of a comprehensive silica rulemaking process, engaging in a robust public comment period. And I believe, working with industry and other key stakeholders, we can complete this rule and save hundreds of lives each year. In a few minutes, you'll hear from Sean Barrett, a Massachusetts man who is coping with life-changing health problems as a result of exposure to silica.

I've met a lot of people in my nine months as Secretary of Labor. But I'm not sure any has moved me more than a man named Alan White, who I visited with just a few weeks into the job. Alan is from my hometown of Buffalo, New York, a member of a Steelworkers local. He's a few years younger than me, but now walking short distances or even climbing stairs is nearly impossible for him. He's a new grandfather, but probably won't be able to run with his grandchild through the park as he had hoped. A few years ago his doctor told him he will die from exposure to silica at the foundry where he's worked for 18 years.

To people who say now is not the time to move ahead with this rule... that we need to study the issue a little longer before taking action, I say: have a conversation with Alan White. Because for him, we've studied this issue quite literally to death. How many more families have to bury their loved ones before we do something?

The fact is that we've been studying this issue for decades and decades. In 1936, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins convened a national conference of experts to study silicosis. This is a summary of their findings, in Secretary Perkins' own words — you can watch the video on OSHA's website: "This report shows how silicosis occurs, where it occurs, and what the disease is. And it makes recommendations for its practical control. Above all, the report emphasizes that [if] these control measures [are] conscientiously adopted and applied... silicosis can be prevented."

Silicosis can be prevented. That was three quarters of a century ago. What are we waiting for?

So please join me, as I know you will, in not waiting any longer — on silica or any of the workplace safety challenges we face. On Workers Memorial Day, as we mourn those we've lost, let's do everything in our power to protect those still with us. In the words of Mother Jones: Let's "pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."