Remarks by Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su at the National Conference on Worker Safety and Health (As Prepared)

Baltimore, MD

December 6, 2023

Let me thank the entire COSH team for putting this event together.

I also want to thank everyone in this audience who advocates on behalf of workers and their health and safety.

I want to start with a scene that everyone in this room knows well: a facility with boxes piled high, blocking exits. Items stacked and spilling into the aisles, making it not only impossible to get out quickly but also dangerous to work in.

This could describe the conditions in a factory over a hundred years ago where 146 workers, overwhelmingly immigrant women, died in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. I recently spoke at the dedication of a memorial in their honor, and I said then, if we only listened to those workers about their conditions, imagine what could have been? Imagine if the workers had mattered enough to have changed the conditions, to have prevented their deaths?

Those conditions don’t just describe a garment factory at the turn of the last century. They also describe conditions we see today: boxes piled high blocking exits; inventory spilling into aisles, heavy equipment cutting off access to fire extinguishers. This is a storeroom in the back of a Dollar Tree. And not just one store.  

In store after store, Dollar Tree put its workers at risk with entirely preventable hazards. And the Department of Labor issued citation after citation.

Since I came to the Department of Labor, I have asked my team to unleash our full power to protect working people, to use all the tools we have not just to conduct inspections and issue citations but to keep workers truly safe, to make sure workers are heard.

And to say to employers who have decided that it’s cheaper to break the law, the chances of getting caught are slim, and the costs even if you do get caught are minimal: not on our watch.

So in August, the Department of Labor reached a corporate-wide compliance agreement with Dollar Tree. Beyond paying fines, this agreement requires Dollar Tree and Family Dollar to fix hazards within 48 hours. The company is also required to create a comprehensive plan to correct their systemic violations… and to create advisory groups where workers can safely raise concerns.

Here's another scene this group knows well: Workers in warehouses moving packages, lifting, bending, under constant surveillance and monitoring and being ranked, forcing them to  work faster, to bend and twist awkwardly, through long shifts—putting them at risk. This is also not a story of a long-ago time. This is happening at Amazon warehouses today.

After conducting inspections at Amazon plants across the country, we know that these aren’t isolated hazards. And we are addressing them as systemic safety issues. And the Department of Labor has also issued a National Emphasis Program in warehousing to focus on these hazards.

These are just a couple of examples of OSHA using its power to create broader systemic change.

Because health and safety can’t just be a cost of doing business. It has to be a core value of doing business.

And to instill that culture change, the Department of Labor is changing the way we work, too.

We are unleashing our power to make sure all of America’s workers can come home safe at the end of every workday and to lift up the voices and the people who have gone unheard and unseen for far too long.

This is important to me. It’s important to President Biden. But even more than that, it’s important for our country.    

So often, dangerous workplace conditions are about much more than a single blocked fire escape or an unstable floor. Many times, they point to problems that are much more deeply rooted across America.

Companies that structure their business models on workplace hazards. Employers who steer Black, Latino, and Asian workers into jobs that come with the lowest pay, the fewest protections, and the most dangerous conditions. Systemic barriers that keep workers hidden, where they don’t have a voice and who have been told their whole lives to keep their head down.

Immigrant workers whose status is weaponized against them.

I’m thinking of so many workers who have shared their stories with OSHA. like a Latino worker in Philadelphia who dropped boiling water on his foot. His boss threatened to fire him – and call immigration – if he missed work. So day after day, the worker showed up as his wound got worse. Eventually it became infected with gangrene that spread. His leg had to be amputated above the knee. After which, his employer promptly fired him.

I’m thinking of a young Black man from Mississippi who moved home from college for summer break. One day at work, his boss assigned him to run a conveyor belt – without any training – all by himself. During that shift, his arm got caught and crushed in the equipment.  

I’m thinking of the family members I met with last year – an event that, I want to note, was organized by OSHA’s first-ever family liaison, Tonya Ford. One young woman who shared her story said she was in her mom's belly when her dad went to work one day and never made it home. She never got to meet her dad and had she shared how painful it was growing up without a father.  

These stories are more than tragedies. At the Department of Labor, they’re also our call to action.

A little later I’ll talk more about some specific actions we’re taking to hold employers accountable when they put workers in danger.

But first, I want to recognize the moment we’re in right now.

We’ve entered a new era of worker power.

Across our country, workers – from healthcare to hospitality to Hollywood… and from teachers to delivery drivers to auto workers are demanding their fair share, are saying we deserve to be valued, are negotiating historic wage increases.

And we have a President, who is not just watching this happen, but using every lever to promote and support it.

And in President Biden’s America, people are finally recognizing worker power is not bad for the economy. It isn’t a threat to our democracy. It is crucial to the health of both.

This moment calls on us at the Department of Labor to be bold. Because to fully support worker’s power, we must fully embrace our own.

Doug Parker heads up OSHA for the Department of Labor. And as you may know, just a few years ago, Doug led Worksafe, which is a COSH group based in Oakland, California. So that makes Doug the first leader of a COSH group to go on to serve as the head of OSHA. And Jim Frederick, our Deputy Assistant Secretary for OSHA, is here with me today. Jim has spent his entire career protecting workers and fighting on their behalf. And we are joined by career OSHA staff—the heart and soul of the Department of Labor.

And I’ve called on Doug, Jim, and the entire OSHA team to unleash their power.

Over the past year, we’ve issued the highest number of our highest penalties in OSHA history.  

OSHA has also increased instance-by-instance citations. Just last week the agency put this to use in North Dakota. On a large job site, a construction contractor failed to protect employees who dig trenches. Instead of grouping all of the company’s violations into one citation, OSHA issued a citation for every single trench violation for every day, over seven days that endangered workers’ lives.

Here’s another example. OSHA recently expanded the Severe Violator Enforcement Program to root out employers, who – even after citation after citation – fail to fix workplace hazards. In the past year, OSHA has tripled the number of new “severe violators.”

We’re also translating our resources and citations into multiple languages to reach more workers. We’re elevating our whistleblower program to make it as prominent as any other part of OSHA. We’re making it easier for workers to file a complaint and we are saying to those who threaten them with retaliation and deportation for doing so: not on our watch.  

But we also know we can’t do this alone.

In my work enforcing labor laws, I know that community organizations and advocates who have the trust of workers are invaluable. And they can be critical partners to government.

In Boston, for example, DOL is partnering with community groups, advocates, experts, and many more with an initiative called New England CARES. And we’ve had lots of success there to better reach workers who do some of the most dangerous jobs and face the steepest barriers to getting support – like immigrants to our country. When we meet with workers, we deliver a simple message: We will listen. You will be heard. And you have the same rights, regardless of immigration status.

I know firsthand how important that message is.

Before I ever worked in government, I was a worker advocate. I fought alongside workers to help them exercise their power. And I found a deep connection between a person’s wellbeing and the jobs in their communities.

If they themselves worked – or saw the people around them working – around the clock, in grueling conditions… it had a profound effect on their faith in a fair and just system and on the dreams they allowed themselves to dream for their own futures.  

But I also saw the flip side. When workers find and exercise their power, it leads to strong communities and a stronger democracy. So when I say that the Department of Labor is unleashing our power, it’s in service of workers being able to use theirs.

This past summer in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a 16-year-old boy was cleaning a machine at the Mar-Jac Poultry processing plant. He became ensnared in the equipment and tragically died. When OSHA arrived at the plant, many workers were hesitant to speak to our investigators. They feared retaliation from their employer.

But we worked with local worker advocates and grassroots organizations. And those groups helped arrange a meeting with workers on a weekend and away from the job site. That’s how we truly hear workers’ voices, in spaces that are safe for them, that’s how we do more effective investigations and prevent future tragedies.

That’s a small step, but it’s still profound.

Because real progress isn’t measured only in citations issued or in dollars fined. The most profound power is in people defying the message they should keep their heads down. It’s in people, standing up and exercising their rights.

And we need your help.

Help us reach more communities and build our capacity. We are building partnerships not just in New England but on the west coast, the south, the Sun Belt,  and across our country.

And I’m asking you to hold us accountable for making the most of this moment.

When the Department of Labor – and all of us in this room – unleash our full power, workers will be able to fully exercise their own.

That’s what we can do together. For workers, for the future they want for themselves, and for the future we want for our country.  Let’s make this happen on our watch.

Thank you.

Delivered By
Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su