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

Remarks for the Honorable Hilda L. Solis
"Workers Memorial Day"
Los Angeles, California
Thursday, April 26, 2012

Good afternoon. Thank you all for being here, and thanks so much to ELAC for hosting us. Mary Elena: It's great to see you again. I know you've fought hard for safety improvements for utility worker and all workers in the region. Thank you for never giving an inch when it comes to making worksites across Los Angeles safe and secure.

I want to acknowledge all of our union leaders here today for making safety improvements a cornerstone of your contract negotiations, and I want to thank our employers here today for being partners in this effort. We know most employers are trying very hard to do right by their workers.

I also have to thank our friends at UCLA for getting the word out about today's summit and for running one of the most important workplace safety centers in the nation for the last 34 years. LOSH is a local treasure with a national reach. They've trained thousands of workers and saved so many lives. Thank you for all that you do.

I also want to recognize California OSHA for developing an incredible awareness campaign to keep workers safe from the summer heat. Last year, my OSHA agency took this campaign national: into the fields, on to airport tarmacs, construction sites and outdoor worksites across America. We educated workers about the warning signs for heat stroke and illness, and we plan to do so again this summer. So thank you Cal OSHA for this incredible initiative. We're proud to be your partner.

Finally, I want to acknowledge all of our Susan Harwood grantees here today for pioneering innovative safety programs across many industries. We know it's impossible to measure a negative. The Bureau of Labor Statistics can't do a survey to quantify the thousands of tragedies prevented due to your work. But we know 95,000 American workers were trained last year through the Hardwood safety grants. And thanks to you, many vulnerable workers in dangerous jobs are able to return home safely to their families at the end of their shifts.

This Saturday is one of the most solemn days on the calendar for all of us at the Department of Labor. It's Workers Memorial Day, a day to remember those who lost their lives while doing their jobs. And it's a day to recommit to making worksites safer across California and the nation.

Last year in the United States, more than 4,500 workers lost their lives in a workplace accident. Let me put that number into perspective for you: More Americans were killed in workplaces tragedies in one year than were lost in nine years of war in Iraq.

Every day in America, 12 people go to work and never come home. Every year in America, nearly 4 million people suffer a workplace injury from which some may never recover. These are preventable tragedies that disable our workers, devastate our families, and damage our economy. American workers are not looking for a handout or a free lunch. They are looking for a good day's pay for a hard day's work. They just want to go to work, provide for their families, and get home in one piece.

It's hard to believe that before OSHA was created in 1971, workers had no right to a safe workplace. It was like the Wild West for workers. Every man for himself. Every woman for herself.

If you worked in a factory, you might lose your life or limbs in a piece of heavy machinery. There was no federal law requiring safety shields to prevent amputations. If you didn't like it, they told you to quit.

If you worked on a construction site 10 stories up, you could fall to your death with one wrong step. There was no federal law requiring you to be given a safety harness. If you didn't like it, they told you to quit.

So as we reflect on the challenges before us, let's first appreciate how far we've come. Before OSHA, 38 workers lost their lives every day on the job, and today that number is down to 12. Since OSHA's creation, workplace deaths are down 65 percent. Job-related injuries are down 67 percent. So, yes, we've come a long way, but we're not there yet, because one worker death, one injury or one illness is one too many.

So in that spirit, I'm proud to announce a new initiative to further reduce these numbers. Today, my department is launching a new national public awareness campaign to protect America's construction workers from deadly falls. Each year over 750 construction workers die on the job. And falls are the leading cause of deaths in this industry, representing about one third of all fatalities. Here in California, 20 construction workers died last year from falls. These deaths were completely preventable.

So OSHA is partnering with NIOSH and the National Occupational Research Agenda program to educate construction workers and employers about their rights and responsibilities. Our partnership will bring together government, labor, management, trade associations, faith groups and leaders academia to develop a framework for innovative workplace safety practices.

We will take our message directly to the worksite to prevent falls. Our simple message is: "Safety pays and falls cost, so plan, provide and train." Plan for working at heights before every job, provide the right equipment, and train workers to use the equipment and work safely.

We know this campaign will prevent injuries and deaths. Every construction worker who steps foot on a roof, scaffold or ladder has a legal right to get the proper safety equipment and training. This is not expensive for employers. In fact, it's the violators who lose big: in workers compensation costs and lost productivity if a fall does happen. Following the law helps companies save both lives and profits, and it boosts morale by showing workers that their employer cares about their well-being.

Of course, we know there are still some in Washington who stand against OSHA. They want to roll back so many of the regulations that keep our workers safe. They say it's too expensive. They say OSHA kills jobs, but they're dead wrong. OSHA stops jobs from killing workers.

On my first day as Labor Secretary, I said, "There is a new sheriff in town." The comment made a few waves. I said it because I wanted employers to know that labor laws would be enforced under my watch. But any good sheriff knows that punishing the bad guys is the last resort. A good sheriff knows her first responsibility is to protect and serve.

That's why under my watch, the Labor Department is focused on being proactive, not reactive. OSHA is focused on helping employers do right by their workers before tragedies happen. Under my watch, we've added more than 100 inspectors to monitor worksites. We've launched a Severe Violators Enforcement Program to give "special attention" to employers who endanger their workers. And we've strengthened compliance assistance to help small business that can't afford a full-time safety coordinator.

Last year, we made over 27,000 visits to small businesses to provide free on-site safety consultations. But here's the truth: We can't do it alone.

OSHA has 1,000 safety inspectors. It would take more than 130 years to inspect each of the 8 million workplaces in America. We depend on workers to speak up when they see a hazard at work. Last year, to encourage our workers to speak up, we strengthened our whistleblower protection program, and it's working.

In the last few years, complaints from railroad workers increased faster than any other whistleblower statute we enforce. Since OSHA was authorized in 2007 to pursue cases under the Federal Railroad Safety Act, we've received more than 800 complaints about this industry alone. Last year, we ordered more than $825,000 in punitive damages against railroads for retaliating against those who blew the whistle on safety violations.

Across all industries, we recovered $15 million last year for workers who lost their jobs because they spoke up about safety, and we're off to a strong start again this year. In January, we ordered AirTran Airways to reinstate a pilot who was fired after reporting numerous mechanical concerns. Can you imagine? This pilot was worried for the safety of his crew and his passengers, because he knew a mechanical problem could put lives in danger. We're glad he spoke up, and we ordered the airline to pay that one pilot more than $1 million in back wages, interest and damages. We sent this employer — and the industry — a very strong message.

Some of our opponents say there's too much focus on penalties and not enough on prevention. But we know that enforcement and tough penalties for serious and repeat offenders leads to prevention, in the same way that getting an expensive speeding ticket reminds us to slow down and stay safe on the highway.

Here in California, we have tough worker protection rules, but they're only as good as the enforcement behind them.

I'll never forget meeting the family of a 23-year-old research assistant from a local lab here in L.A. Their daughter had her whole life ahead of her. She was passionate about chemistry and the rights of women and immigrants. But one day, while performing an experiment with highly reactive chemicals, a flash fire ignited her clothes and skin. She lost her life, and she didn't have to. She had not been given safety training and was not wearing her protective lab coat.

I met later with her tight-knit family. The weight of their loss was unbearable. Of course, none of us is ever prepared to say goodbye to the people we love. But this family's daughter died while trying to make a living, and her death was preventable. No family should have to endure that kind of pain.

So as we prepare to observe Workers Memorial Day on Saturday, I ask you to make your voices heard. Unless you speak up and educate our politicians at the local state and national level, it doesn't matter who is sitting in the White House, because our opponents will win. And innocent lives will be lost — lives that could have been saved.

Let's remember: It was a Republican President, Richard Nixon, who worked with Congress to create OSHA more than 40 years ago. But now too many members of his party want to turn back the clock.

They need to hear from the people in this room. They need to hear from workers who are still facing hazards in our workplaces.

They need to hear from those of you who are speaking up for those who can't speak for themselves.

They need to hear from family members who know what it's like to lose a loved one — in a workplace incident that could've been prevented for a few more dollars.

This is how we can honor the fallen: by standing up together with courage and conviction and saying two words that will echo across this country: Never again.

Safety must come first. Workplace tragedies must be prevented. And making a living should never mean dying.

God bless you. God bless the memories of the memories of the fallen. And God bless the United States of America.