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OSEC Congressional Testimony

Statement of Secretary Robert B. Reich United States Department of Labor before the Committee on Economic and Educational Subcommittee on Workforce Protections United States House of Representatives [6/28/95]

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I am pleased to appear before the Subcommittee today to review the mission and record of both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration -- and to discuss H.R. 1834, which would affect both agencies.

Protecting the safety and health of Americans workers -- whether they work in a factory, an office, or a mine -- is a national priority. On that, Mr. Chairman, we agree. Where we differ perhaps is on how to reach that goal. And that is what I would like to discuss this morning -- confident that whatever our disagreements over the route, we share a common destination. Let me begin with OSHA.

Worker Health and Safety in America

Since its creation in 1970, OSHA has improved the lives of America's working families. Over these last twenty-five years, the workplace fatality rate has declined 57 percent -- thanks largely to the agency's protective standards and enforcement program.

OSHA's standards have made a real difference -- often the difference between life and death -- for millions of working people. In FY 1994 alone, OSHA inspections

helped make more than 40,000 workplaces safer for nearly two million working Americans.

But despite this progress -- which has been aided substantially by many responsible employers -- we still have a long way to go. For example, even in our new economy, work-related accidents and illnesses still cost an estimated 56,000 lives each year -- more than the total number of Americans killed in battle during the entire Vietnam War. Each day, another 6,000 workers are injured on the job and lose time from work. All told, safety accidents cost our economy over $100 billion a year, and occupational illnesses cost many times more. And we all pay the price -- as employers, as workers, and as taxpayers.

But the true toll cannot be calculated in dollars and cents, for behind every number is a neighbor. Consider just one week earlier this month:

On June 9, a worker was electrocuted in Miami, another died from a fall off a ladder in Angston, Pennsylvania, and a third was killed at a Montana copper mine, when he fell from the 170-ton haul truck he was repairing.

On June 10, a worker was crushed to death underneath a forklift in Baton Rouge, and a water line inspector was asphyxiated inside a manhole in Kansas City.

On June 11, a worker was electrocuted in St. Louis, another was electrocuted in Beaumont, Texas, and two workers were killed in a fuel tank explosion in Wichita Falls, Texas.

On June 12, a worker was crushed by a crane boom in Fruita, Colorado, a construction worker fell to his death off a balcony in Bellaire, Florida, and a worker in Haven, Wisconsin was pulled into a metal press.

On June 13, a logger was run over by a skidder in Flatrock, Alabama, a construction worker in Alexander, Arkansas was killed when he was struck by a trailer loading ramp, and a worker was killed in Orrington, Maine when he became tangled in a conveyor belt and was pulled through the 6-inch space between a roller and the conveyor belt's frame.

On June 14, a worker was electrocuted in Bradford, Pennsylvania, a worker burned to death in a truck accident in Scott City, Missouri, and 3 asbestos removal workers were injured by a chemical release in Savannah, Georgia.

On June 15, a worker fell 15 floors to his death in an elevator shaft in Atlanta, three workers were killed in a head-on collision of a dump truck and a delivery truck, and a worker was crushed by a skid loader in Davis City, Nebraska.

Seven days on the job in America.

Each of these incidents represents a family's tragedy, of course. But the most tragic fact of all is that most of these incidents could have been prevented by compliance with OSHA's existing regulations. The need for a strong OSHA to protect workers remains.

The New OSHA

At the same time, I recognize that at times in the past OSHA has focused too much on processes and activity, and not enough on safety and health. But make no mistake: OSHA is changing the way it does business. On May 16, President Clinton announced a host of dramatic initiatives the agency has been working on since 1993. These reforms are changing the agency's culture -- to ensure that we adequately protect workers without imposing unfair burdens on employers.

There are three core principles guiding these efforts. First, more cooperation. OSHA has begun to refocus its enforcement and compliance assistance efforts. We will develop a broad range of solutions, and treat good actors differently from bad actors. For employers who have made safety and health a priority, and who seek a productive partnership, we will offer incentives, compliance assistance, training and education -- and we will recognize their good efforts. But for those employers who disregard their workers' safety and health -- and Mr. Chairman, the sad fact is that some still do -- we will continue to vigorously enforce the law.

The second principle: old-fashioned common sense. OSHA is changing its approach to regulations by eliminating or fixing out-of-date and confusing standards, by identifying clear and sensible priorities for new rules, and by employing flexible "performance-based" approaches where feasible. Recently, OSHA completed a page-by-page review of its nearly 3,000 pages of regulations. The agency identified over 1,000 pages to be eliminated or revised.

The third principle: results -- not red tape. Many employers have complained that OSHA inspectors care less about worker safety than they do about meeting perceived "quotas" for citations and penalties. While OSHA has never used quotas, it has in the past used citations and penalties as performance measures. But not anymore. This year, the new OSHA ended this practice. Now OSHA's performance will be measured by results -- by its success improving the health and safety of American workplaces.

These efforts have already begun to reap rewards for employers and for workers. For example, in the Maine 200 program nearly 200 employers chose to work cooperatively with OSHA to establish safety and health programs. Doing the job themselves, these employers identified about fourteen times as many hazards as OSHA inspectors would likely have found. The bottom line: workers were safer and healthier, and employers saved money.

Reform or Wrecking Ball?

Now, let me spend a few minutes on H.R. 1834. While the President's "New OSHA" initiative would treat responsible employers differently from neglectful ones, H.R. 1834 would provide all employers -- including those who disregard worker safety -- with a host of exemptions and defenses against OSHA enforcement. All of us agree that the status quo will not do, which leaves us with a choice: reform or wrecking ball? I have several specific concerns with this legislation.

Prevention Through Enforcement. For a quarter-century, OSHA has focused on preventing workplace accidents. And the main mechanism has been an enforcement program under which the possibility of citations and fines encourages otherwise inactive employers to protect their workers. H.R. 1834 would abandon this preventive focus, by prohibiting the agency from issuing citations and penalties in the first instance unless workers are killed or injured or an imminent danger is present. Employers would receive only a "notice" even where they have ignored the most obvious hazards and shown a blatant disregard for worker safety. In addition, OSHA's enforcement program would be limited to no more than 50 percent of the agency's budget, more than half of the American businesses would be exempt from OSHA's general inspection program, and the agency would be precluded from increasing penalties for willful or repeat violations.

The consequences of these kinds of changes would ripple through the system. By taking away the agency's enforcement teeth, some companies would be encouraged to seek a short-term cost advantage by reducing their attention to workplace health and safety. And their competitors would then understandably follow in their path, launching a race to the bottom that would eventually endanger people and profits alike.

The General Duty Clause. At the heart of the OSH Act is the "general duty clause." This crucial provision requires employers to protect workers from all recognizable hazards likely to cause death or serious harm -- not simply the relative few workplace dangers explicitly addressed by OSHA's protective standards. H.R. 1834 effectively repeals this clause by making it unenforceable, leaving American workers exposed to thousands of serious hazards that are not currently covered by OSHA standards.

Standards Based on Profits, Not Science. H.R. 1834 would eliminate the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which for 25 years has conducted vital research on workplace hazards, and has been essential in setting standards for asbestos, vinyl chloride, and lead, to name just a few. Without NIOSH's expertise, OSHA would have much greater difficulty establishing the extent of risks posed by particular hazards. In its place, H.R. 1834 would allow parties with a direct financial interest to participate in "peer review" panels that would guide the development of standards. Ironically, H.R. 1834's regulatory reforms are premised on the notion that OSHA needs better science to regulate workplace hazards. Yet the bill would eliminate the only federal agency that conducts research on such hazards.

Employee Complaints. One of the core premises of the OSH Act is that where workers fear retaliation from their employers, they have a right to seek OSHA's help in addressing workplace hazards. But under H.R. 1834, workers would be banned from contacting OSHA unless they had first raised the problem with their employer -- even when the worker faced an imminent danger on the job, and even when bringing up the issue with the employer could trigger retribution. This approach would likely discourage many workers from raising legitimate safety and health concerns.

Layers of New Bureaucracy. In the name of deregulation, H.R. 1834 would force OSHA to establish many new layers of bureaucratic process, and to slog through each of those layers before it could protect workers from emerging hazards. The bill would impose rigid, "one-size-fits-all" risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis criteria, require costly, redundant peer reviews, and establish a new regulatory petition process to allow perpetual challenge to OSHA's protective rules. These proposals would likely waste millions of taxpayer dollars and delay rules for months or years at the expense of workers' safety and health.

More Litigation. H.R. 1834 establishes many new bases for employers to challenge OSHA's protective standards in court, virtually guaranteeing years of legal challenges before workers can be protected. In the meantime, working men and women would continue to suffer fatalities, injuries and illnesses that could otherwise have been avoided. The workers who would most benefit? Lawyers.

Employer Domination. Employee involvement is one of the most important means of improving workplace safety and health. And that involvement doesn't have to compromise workers' representational rights. Nevertheless, I am afraid that in the name of labor-management cooperation, H.R. 1834 would allow employers to dominate, interfere with or otherwise control any labor organization -- in effect, to sit on both sides of the bargaining table -- as long as no contract is signed.

Protecting Workers in America's Mines

The final objection I have to H.R. 1834 is significant, and merits a more detailed discussion. This legislation would pose a substantial threat to America's miners and America's mining industry. It would force a severe -- and even dangerous -- revision in federal mine safety and enforcement.

Since 1910, the federal government has been addressing the hazards in our nation's mines. Six decades before the OSHA law was enacted, the federal government began fashioning a system and a set of rules that have succeeded in reducing death and disease in the nation's mines. This bill would be the first federal statute ever to weaken protections for miners.

Here's specifically what H.R. 1834 would do: It would repeal most of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. It would merge the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which enforces the Mine Act, with OSHA. And current mine safety and health standards -- with important exceptions -- would be enforced under the weakened provisions of the worker safety law I described earlier in my testimony.

But changing the legislative apparatus would do nothing to alter this fact: mining is one of the most dangerous industries in the country, and in the world. The work environment changes quickly -- and without notice. As one hazard is corrected, another may appears. Miners still die in explosions. Miners still die in roof falls. Miners still die in blasting accidents. And miners still develop black lung and silicosis -- because problems in monitoring and controlling dust levels have so far been beyond our capacity to solve.

Sometimes we forget where the marvels of the mining industry come from -- gold and gravel, salt and stone, computer chips and cosmetics -- and what was necessary to get them. But I won't forget. On the fortunate occasion of Davitt McAteer's swearing in as Assistant Secretary, I had the opportunity to go into the mines. There, far below the earth's surface, I saw the work miners do . . . work that demands sharp skills and hard-won expertise. Since then, I've had a deep appreciation for the courage shown by miners every day -- and for the importance of a safe and productive mining industry.

Now, with respect to mining, H.R. 1834 begins with a valid premise: that we have made strides over the last several decades in improving the health and safety of our miners. But the conclusion drawn from that premise -- that the Mine Act should be repealed and MSHA eliminated -- is badly flawed. Coal miners are five times less likely to be killed on the job than they were in 1969, and metal miners twice less likely to die -- largely because we had the law and the agency in place. At the same time, productivity has soared.

But H.R. 1834 would reverse much of this progress. Taken together, the provisions of this legislation reflect an approach to mine safety and health that already has been tried -- and rejected: Mine inspections would be severely curtailed, even for gassy mines where the danger of explosion is high. MSHA's most effective enforcement tools would be eliminated or restricted. Miners who stand up for safety would lose rights and remedies. The issuance of every new mine safety and health standard would be subject to a series of burdensome requirements, likely to increase litigation and regulatory gridlock. Existing standards -- like the standard for respirable coal mine dust that protects miners from black lung -- would be threatened by the same unnecessary strictures.

In every respect, the ability of the Federal Government to protect miners would be seriously weakened. H.R. 1834 is presented as a cost-cutting measure, designed to make better use of the Federal Government's resources for occupational safety and health. Mr. Chairman, that aim is admirable. Unfortunately, H.R. 1834 would mean greater risks for miners, without offering better protection for other workers.

But our opposition to H.R. 1834 should not be seen as an unwillingness to pursue genuine reform and innovation. Under the leadership of Davitt McAteer, MSHA has worked hard at refining its programs, with good results. MSHA's Small Mines Summit focused on the safety problems of small mine and helped them comply with the law. The Agency has opened up its policy-making process to the public. It is re-examining the scope and purpose of its mine inspections, while increasing education and training and compliance-assistance efforts. At the President's direction, MSHA has reviewed its regulations page-by-page to identify obsolete rules. It is exploring the prospects for negotiated rule-making, for reduced reporting requirements, and for minimizing penalties for non-serious violations. MSHA is ready to expand on promising initiatives like these. But it is not ready to abandon its core mission.

A Commitment to Cooperation

Mr. Chairman, as I said at the beginning of this testimony, you and I differ -- but we differ more about means than about ends. And that signals to me that we can work together toward a common goal. Indeed, I stand ready to work with you to move forward on this critical issue. I want to work with you to respond to the anecdotal stories that have pervaded this debate, to check the facts and to fix problems where we find them. I want to tell you more about the striking progress we are making with the President's "new" OSHA and our initiatives at MSHA. And I want to work with you to ensure that any legislative reforms make the workplace safe and healthy for the millions of men and women who make the American economy the envy of the world.

Thank you very much.

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