Acting Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris
Prepared Remarks by
Acting Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris,
U.S. Department of Labor Workers' Memorial Day Program and Ceremony,
April 29, 2013
Thank you David and good morning everyone. Thank you for joining us as we remember those who have given their lives while doing their jobs; those who left for work one day and then left this Earth before they could make it back home.
Today, we remember unspeakable disasters going back more than a century, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. We remember the miners at Upper Big Branch. We remember those who were killed in the plant explosion in West Texas less than two weeks ago. And we remember the victims in Bangladesh, as this is International Workers' Memorial Day.
We remember those who perished more anonymously in incidents that are no less tragic for having garnered fewer headlines. We remember Danielle Dole's father and Dr. Bridgette Hester's husband, and we thank Danielle and Bridgette for joining us today to share their personal stories.
At the same time, we should take this opportunity to recognize the accidents that didn't happen and the deaths we were able to prevent through the work of my colleagues here at the U.S. Department of Labor. In that vein, let me express my gratitude to Assistant Secretaries David Michaels and Joe Main and all of the exemplary public servants who work, in this building and in the field, for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and, to guard against unsafe child labor, the Wage and Hour Division. Your work is hard every single day, despite limited resources, doing everything in your power to ensure that fatal workplace accidents are as rare as possible.
While we celebrate 100 years of the Department of Labor, it's important to remember that OSHA and MSHA have been around less than half that time. In my lifetime, there was no federal protection for workers who faced deadly hazards on the job. In many cases, workplace injuries, sickness and fatalities were considered little more than collateral damage, just the cost of doing business.
If you feared that the scaffolding at the construction site might collapse or that your shortness of breath was the result of hazardous chemicals at the plant…well, you didn't have much recourse. If you thought your employer was cutting corners or being negligent, you didn't dare speak up, because there was no such thing as whistleblower protections.
But because of heightened awareness, because of federal inspections and regulations, because of relentless advocacy on the part of so many, we've seen a sea change. A staggering 14,000 workers were killed on the job during 1970. That number has fallen by two-thirds to 4,693 -- BLS just released the final 2011 figure last week -- even as the size of the workforce has doubled.
But we cannot and must not say our work is done. That's 4,693 workplace fatalities too many. It's 13 workplace deaths a day too many. That's more American lives lost than on some of the most violent days of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As the nation continues to bounce back from the Great Recession, we can't succumb to the tired, old false choice between job growth and job safety. We know – and responsible employers know -- that these two goals are not in tension, that workplace safety and health measures are a sound business investment and good for our economy.
We can and we must save more lives with even stronger enforcement, even better training and outreach. We must use all our tools to protect every worker whether English is their first language or not, whether they started yesterday or 30 years ago, whether they're a full-time employee or a temporary or contingent worker.
It will take a robust, appropriately resourced OSHA, MSHA, and Wage and Hour. But preventing workplace fatalities is not a government responsibility alone. In fact, the first duty lies with employers. The law requires that employers keep their workplaces as safe and healthy as possible. All employers must accept and fully comply with this legal and moral obligation.
As the posters hanging in our elevators say: "No worker should sacrifice their life for their livelihood." Today we remember those who have nevertheless made that terrible sacrifice – the husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters taken from their families so prematurely and unnecessarily.
Even as we reflect back on their lives, let's also look forward, inspired by their memory to rededicate ourselves to our worker safety mission. Let's honor them -- not just with a solemn ceremony one day out of the year, but with renewed vigilance, diligence and determination every single day of the year.
Thank you very much.