Forty years ago, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, a seminal piece of legislation that has had a tremendous impact on the lives and safety of workers across the country. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was born and came of age protecting workers from death, injury and illness. In the four decades since, fatality and injury rates have dropped markedly. Enforcement of OSHA’s standards for asbestos, benzene, blood-borne pathogens and other health hazards have prevented countless cases of work-related disease. Dedicated OSHA staff have done excellent work, even during periods of stagnant budgets and political leadership that failed to value strong regulation.
Yet the sad truth is that the task of OSHA is far from complete, and indeed, recent years have witnessed a continuation of many of the same tragic instances of mismanagement, mistakes and indifference that result in deaths, illness and injury to workers who will never again go home from their place of employment to embrace their families. As OSHA turns forty, it is clear to me that doing more of the same, better and with new resources, although necessary, is just not enough. OSHA needs a fundamental transformation in the way we address workplace hazards, and in our relationship to employers and workers. A new paradigm must take root at this critical stage in the history of our agency.
One of OSHA’s goals must be to level the playing field, to ensure that responsible employers, who make the investment to protect their workers, are not undercut by the irresponsible ones who put short term gain ahead of the health of their employees. We intend to communicate a more effective deterrent to the boardrooms of employers who would sacrifice the lives of their workers to save a buck. We will enhance our enforcement through various means, and not hesitate to publicize the names of violators whose actions place the safety and health of workers in danger. We will ensure our enforcement activities are focused on high-risk industries and vulnerable at-risk populations of workers.
Recognizing that only knowledgeable and secure workers will be able to participate effectively in their employer’s safety and health programs, we will direct resources to reach out to the most vulnerable workers, and strengthen our whistleblower protection program. We will refocus and strengthen our compliance assistance programs and seek to change workplace culture so that employers find and fix workplace hazards before they result in injury or illness. We will develop innovative approaches to addressing hazards and improve intra-agency collaboration. We will modernize our incident tracking, strengthening our focus on accurate recordkeeping. We will enhance OSHA’s use of science and our partnership with State plans. Perhaps most importantly, we will continue to conduct our work with transparency, openness, integrity and humility.
At heart, OSHA’s job is to save lives, and everyone can help. I encourage you today to give OSHA the best birthday gift we could ask for, and spread the word about health and safety issues in the workplace. Together this Labor Day, let’s continue down the path we started four decades ago, towards a day when no-one will ever have to give up their safety or their health for a paycheck.
Dr. David Michaels is the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health.