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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
American Society of Safety Engineers Conference
San Antonio, Texas
Monday, June 29, 2009

Good morning!

Thank you President (Warren) Brown for that kind introduction.

It is truly an honor to be here today.

I want to thank President Brown for his leadership and the rest of the board of the American Society of Safety Engineers for their dedication to making the workplace safe for everyone.

I also want to briefly thank Diana Cortez, our OSHA Area Office Director in New York, and Vice Chair of the ASSE's Safety Professionals and the Latino Workforce, for the initial invitation to speak at the conference. Diana not only excels in her job, but also takes the time to assume a leadership role in an outside association and become a voice for Latino workers in this profession.

One of the great parts of my job is speaking with people like you. People who are making meaningful contributions to improving and protecting the lives of working families in our country. The work you do is not easy, and in these difficult economic times, it's even harder for you to sell the message that workplace safety and health needs to be a business priority. It's hard work, but it's a vitally important mission for the working people of this country, and I salute you and thank you for your work.

As the product of immigrant parents and a working-class home, I understand the situation facing American workers.

My dad worked in a battery recycling plant and was a member of the Teamsters, and my mother worked at a toy assembly plant and was a member of the Steelworkers Union. They fought side-by-side with their coworkers to make sure that their workplace was safe, and when their shift was over, they came home to their family safely.

My parents instilled in me many values - but most importantly they taught me to fight for what is right. These are the values I bring with me to the Department of Labor.

As Labor Secretary I believe in good jobs for everyone.

Good jobs mean jobs that are safe, secure, that pay decent wages and provide benefits. And good jobs provide workers a voice in the workplace.

President Obama also believes this. The government has a fundamental responsibility to protect workers from unsafe work places and to protect workers from unjust labor practices.

We are focused on workers — not voluntary programs and alliances.

We are serious about workplace protection.

We are serious about workplace health.

And we are serious about workplace safety.

As I have said since my first day on the job — make no mistake, the Department of Labor is back in the enforcement business. You can see this commitment echoed in my Fiscal Year 2010 Budget request. This budget will return our worker protection efforts to a level not seen since 2001! These programs protect the safety and health of America's workers and enforce laws governing minimum wage, overtime, and family and medical leave. They protect workers' pension and health benefits and ensure equal opportunity in federal contracting.

For Fiscal year 2010, the Labor Department is requesting $1.7 billion for worker protection programs, an increase of 10% above the 2009 levels. In a single year, we will be adding nearly 670 additional investigators, inspectors, and other program staff. These additional resources will allow the Wage and Hour Division to improve compliance in low-wage industries that employ vulnerable workers. They will increase its focus on reducing repeat violations, and use complaint investigations strategically so we can increase protections for the greatest number of workers.

Our budget request builds on OSHA's renewed commitments to its mission. The budget proposes an increase of $50.6 million for the agency, allowing us to hire more than 200 new employees including:

  • 130 more inspectors,
  • 25 more discrimination investigators to pursue whistleblower complaints,
  • 20 more staff members who will help develop workplace standards for safety and health, and
  • includes an emphasis on hiring bilingual staff that is able to address the workplace's changing demographics.

OSHA's renewal of vigorously enforcing its standards and regulations means employers will no longer be able to say that it costs too much or takes too much time to address worker safety and health. There will be no excuses for negligence in protecting workers' from injury, illness and death.

OSHA's leadership and I are of one voice, advocating vigorous enforcement of laws that protect workers. We are committed to a strong federal role in protecting workplace safety and health, as mandated in the original Act that created the Agency.

Today in Texas, the construction industry is experiencing too many injuries and fatalities. In 2008 there were 67 fatalities and so far in 2009 there have been 33 fatalities. This brings the total to 145 fatalities since 2007 — this is intolerable.

And even more unbearable is that Hispanic fatalities in construction continue to rise, with a 125% increase in fatalities from 1992 to 2005. These are men and women with families, who have left spouses and children without a mom or dad.

The state of Texas has the dubious distinction of having more workers die than any other state, not one that I think they are proud of. Today I am announcing that beginning in July of this year, OSHA will launch a major new Construction Safety Focus throughout the state of Texas. For several weeks, compliance officers in Texas and others that we bring in from around the country will focus all of their efforts on preventing construction injuries and fatalities.

In past campaigns, OSHA has been successful in curbing construction fatalities and raising awareness about eliminating dangers in this industry. In 2007 and 2008, over 3,000 inspections were conducted by OSHA in Southeastern states. A total of 4,390 violations were cited. OSHA field compliance officers conducted immediate inspections when they observed unsafe scaffolds, fall risks, trenches and other construction hazards, leading to a reduction in worksite fatalities.

We are serious about safety. And so long as I am Secretary of Labor, the Department will go after anyone who negligently puts workers lives at risk.

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. However, every business, regardless of its size, must provide its employees with safe working conditions. And considering the range of potential hazards — from asbestos to slippery stairs to excessive noise — that can be difficult, but it is necessary.

The Department of Labor stands ready to work with employers across the country to ensure they have an effective safety and emergency action plan. These plans require both the commitment of top managers and the participation of all company employees.

I stand here today to tell business owners, both large and small, that we want to work with you, partner with you, because safe workers are productive and loyal workers.

As you can see, worker safety is a priority for the Labor Department, but safe workers are also healthy workers. An influenza pandemic also puts workers at risk, and employers and employees must be ready for any potential outbreak.

In May, the outbreak of the H1N1 virus across North America tested our preparedness for a major health emergency. Although the initial concern over the H1N1 strain has subsided, scientists believe that this strain and at least one other are candidates for a future pandemic that could be much more serious. The Department of Labor has been working closely with the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services — including the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and other federal agencies. Our goal is to ensure that health care workers and others whose jobs put them at increased risk of exposure are protected from infection.

Fortunately, because of the work OSHA has done in preparing for a possible outbreak of a pandemic related to the Avian Influenza virus, the agency is prepared to address the dangers of an influenza outbreak should it occur. The full range of OSHA's training, education, enforcement, and public outreach programs will be used to help employers and workers protect themselves at work.

OSHA has created a Web site with links to numerous informational documents that show how to keep workers safe and healthy on the job while reducing the spread of a global virus. I encourage everyone to visit both the federal and State OSHA Websites today to learn more about "what to do about the flu."

As you all know, a pandemic could cause significant changes in our society and particularly our workforce and our economy. We are also concerned about whether the laws and regulations that form this country's safety net are adequate to address the disruption that a severe pandemic may cause if schools and workplaces are closed and millions of workers are forced to stay home. We could see high employee absenteeism and disruptions in the delivery of products and services.

We're preparing to direct the full range of our education, enforcement, technical assistance and public outreach programs to minimize the impact of the virus in American workplaces. Everyone in the audience can play a vital role in protecting America, too.

Every business, every organization, every worksite needs to develop and test a comprehensive emergency plan to protect their employees during a pandemic.

I hope that through words and actions you know where I stand on workplace safety. Our regulatory principals are clear: Where workers are in danger, where mandatory regulations make sense, we will act.

Workplace safety is everyone's business, and today I call upon everyone in America — employers and employees, family members, and friends — to spend time today talking with each other about how to stay safe and healthy on the job, and how we can do a better job of looking out for each other.

Together we can meet the needs of America's workers and their families and build a more prosperous, equitable America.

I look forward to working with ASSE and its members on these issues, and I thank you for working to keep American workers safe.

Thank you and have a great conference.

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