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Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich

Washington, DC

May 21, 1996

Thank you, Dr. Buchan. And congratulations to you and Dr. Mansdorf for your success in putting together what I'm sure will be a highly successful conference. And I commend Dr. Vern Rose for his progressive leadership of the AIHA during the past year.

I am delighted, of course, to be here at this most important gathering of occupational health and safety professionals, and to have the opportunity to salute the American Industrial Hygiene Association and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists for the positive role they play in promoting occupational health and safety.

For several months now, America has been engaged in what I believe to be a healthy national conversation about wages, about jobs, and about the anxiety felt by many working men and women in an era of vast, momentous economic change.

Unemployment is down. Productivity, GDP growth and job creation are up. The deficit has been cut nearly in half. The long slide in median wages has been halted and the poverty rate is dropping.

But, as President Clinton has said, this is a record to build on, not sit on. The President has defined the next great challenge before us -- the second stage of economic renewal -- as restoring wage growth and restoring economic security for the majority of working families, and making the American dream of opportunity for all a reality for all who are willing to work for it.

Last week, here in Washington, the President hosted a conference on corporate citizenship -- one aimed at focusing attention on companies that have shown that doing right by their employees is fully consistent with doing well.

An important aspect of good corporate citizenship is maintaining a healthy and safe workplace. And what we've been finding is that America's best companies view safety and health as a critical part of their overall competitive strategy.

In other words, show me a company that runs good health and safety program for its employees -- one that fully involves workers in an active, innovative partner-ship -- and I'll show you a company with consistently high performance in other areas -- productivity, quality and profitability.

We heard from the CEO of Corning, as well as the national president of the union representing Corning's workers. And we heard how, working cooperatively, the company and the workers reduced their accident rate by more than 50 percent. Together, they intensified safety training. Together, they set goals, the conducted safety audits and they tracked their progress. And their efforts have paid off.

We also heard from the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, and his company's intensive effort to become "the safest company in America." The company's program focused on training, identifying and correcting hazards, investigating and reporting incidents, measuring progress and recognizing employees who embrace safety as a value. The result: safety performance improved by 80 percent.

What the CEOs of Corning and Johnson & Johnson will tell you is that preventing illnesses and injuries has been good for their companies' bottom line -- in addition to being the right thing to do.

We are finding that when you take away the adversarial relationship between the enforcer and the enforced -- when companies work with OSHA to identify and correct workplace hazards -- then more hazards are identified, more are corrected, and more workers enjoy a healthier and safer working environment.

And the companies reap benefits in lower workers' compensations costs, fewer lost work days and -- yes -- fewer expenses related to OSHA inspections and fines.

Three years ago it could have taken up to 60 days between the time that OSHA heard about a safety problem and an employer remedied it. Now, in most cases, it takes fewer than 10 days. Why? OSHA and employers are talking directly with one another by phone and fax instead of by letter.

Another example: In l991 OSHA fined 5,000 employers an average of $400 each for not posting this sign at their workplace. Now, if an employer doesn't have one posted, the OSHA inspector gives him one and asks him to post it.

OSHA's "Maine 200" pilot program, offering companies with a high number of workers' comp claims a choice between partnership with OSHA or increased inspection, has been so successful that it is now being expanded nationwide. It's called the Cooperative Compliance Program, and it's already in 11 states.

Companies participating in the program have identified and moved to correct 14 times as many hazards -- at 1,300 work sites -- as OSHA ever could have found on its own. Sixty percent of them have already cut their illness and injury rates.

As OSHA reinvents itself, we are finding that partnership and cooperation are often the best way to achieve the overall goal of fewer workplace deaths, injuries and illnesses. But, to be effective in achieving this goal, that partnership has to go beyond the relationship between businesses and government. It has to include workers, as well.

That is why OSHA is now putting together a national standard for employers to adopt their own safety and health program -- one that identifies and controls hazards, assures health and safety training for employees, and involves workers in the process.

The fact is that standards work. And because we know that partnership and employee involvement work as well -- and have been highly successful in reducing workplace deaths, injuries and illnesses -- we've got to find a way to assure that every company initiates a safety and health management system.

We believe that a national standard on safety and health programs is the way to do it.

You can't argue with OSHA's past success. The nation's workplace fatality rate has been cut in half from what it was before OSHA started doing its job.

Fewer workers are dying in construction trenches, or from lead poisoning, or in grain elevator explosions. Brown lung, the cotton dust disease, has been virtually eliminated. We know that fewer limbs and fingers have been lost to unguarded machinery.

MSHA's success has been just as noteworthy. Far fewer miners die in explosions and roof-falls. Black lung disease is much less common.

This didn't happen by magic.

This happened because the government developed standards and enforced those standards. It happened because OSHA and MSHA inspections have made workplaces safer. When it comes to preventing death and injury on the job, standards work. Enforcement also works. We will continue to collaborate with responsible businesses. But OSHA also must continue to be the cop on the beat.

That's why, in 1995, OSHA more than doubled the number of "egregious penalty cases" -- the agency's toughest enforcement action. There will continue to be serious consequences for serious violators.

And that's why OSHA will continue to address, through promulgation and enforcement of health standards, the serious problem of occupational disease. We estimate that approximately 135 people die each day from diseases related to workplace exposure -- diseases like cancer and respiratory illnesses.

Some propagandists accuse the federal regulatory agencies of fanning public fears about so-called "unproven" hazards. We reject this "what you can't see can't hurt you" attitude. It is especially misguided in the occupational area, where so many of the hazards are proven beyond any reasonable doubt -- and where evidence of the success of regulation is undeniable.

The emerging science of quantitative risk assessment will be our best ally in developing flexible and economically reasonable health standards. Although OSHA's statute -- as interpreted by the Supreme Court -- rejects the notion that standards must pass the "mathematical straightjacket" of a strict cost-benefit test, we believe that risk assessment can point us toward those risks that are most dire and most preventable.

Risk assessment can help OSHA make the case that prudent controls on occupational carcinogens, reproductive toxins, respiratory irritants and other pollutants can be good for the economy as well as indispensable for a just society.

OSHA has done it before. Its standard for vinyl chloride virtually eliminated liver disease caused by that toxin. We know that OSHA can do it again.

In our changing economy, we also face the challenges of new hazards that are brought forth as old ones fade.

For instance, violence has emerged as an important safety issue in today's workplace. Call it a sad comment on our times, but the most recent figures available show that 20,000 workplace incidents a year involve assaults or other violent acts -- three-fifths of them directed at women.

Repetitive motion injuries are now the cause of the longest absences from work -- a median of 18 days. In fact, these kinds of injuries are now occurring at a rate of more than 300,000 each year.

And let me say a word about the law barring OSHA from issuing a standard -- or even guidelines -- on repetitive motion. A proponent of that law was quoted as saying that "no one has ever died of ergonomics." I only wish that those who hamstrung OSHA on repetitive injuries could have met a woman who stood with Vice President Gore last month at a ceremony marking the 25th Anniversary of OSHA.

She had worked years in a poultry plant -- splitting chicken breasts. Over time, that daily task took such a painful toll on her hands and arms that she eventually could not do the work anymore. She couldn't even cook dinner or pick up her children. And you know what happened to her? She was fired. She was fired because she did her job the only way she knew how -- and because it crippled her and made her unemployable.

And the tragedy does not end there. The sad fact is that OSHA cannot prevent this from happening to anyone else because the Labor Department's appropriation this year included a provision barring the agency from addressing the problem of repetitive motion injuries -- through regulation or even through voluntary guidelines.

This problem is simply too important -- and affects too many workers -- for the agency to stand idle. I can tell you that we will do what we can. We will support scientific research on ergonomics. We will make sure the public knows about the danger. We will continue to penalize employers who egregiously subject their employees to this hazard. And we're going to keep fighting to regain our authority to establish minimum standards for protecting working people from repetitive motion injuries.

For America's working men and women -- for the public at large -- having an OSHA that identifies hazards in today's workplaces, sets proper standards and serves as cop-on-the-beat is as important as ever.

Apparently, some members of Congress haven't gotten that message. Though they failed in their attempt last year to gut OSHA, eliminate MSHA and cripple OSHA's enforcement and partnership programs, they are back this year with the same old budget proposals.

Let me assure you that we will oppose any budget cuts or changes in the law that would weaken worker protections.

Clearly, the mission of OSHA and MSHA is not complete -- and the American people know it. In the words of one CEO who spoke at the corporate citizenship conference last week, workplace safety and health is "a never-ending journey."

I believe that this is the outlook and the attitude that will prevail in the months and years ahead. I believe OSHA and MSHA are here for the long haul. I believe that both agencies will continue to vigorously pursue its goal of a healthier and safer workplace for all Americans.

And I am grateful to you for dedicating your lives to that same purpose.

Thank you.

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