OSHA Administrator Speaks Out for Worker Memorial Day

April 25, 2003
Assistant Secretary of Labor-OSHA John L. Henshaw took some time this week to reflect on the state of occupational safety and health in honor of Worker Memorial Day, April 28. "Progress is good" in reducing workplace injuries and illnesses, he said, "but we must do more."

"On this day we pause to recognize and remember those workers who lost their lives making a living, supporting their families and contributing to their communities," said Henshaw. "They worked in a whole host of jobs and spoke a multitude of languages. But they had one thing in common. One day they went to work and never came home. It is in their memory that we strive to keep improving the safety and health of America's workforce."

Henshaw noted U.S. workplaces are safer and more healthful than ever before. Over the past 30 years, worker fatalities have been cut by more than 60 percent, and injury and illness rates have declined by over 40 percent.

However, Henshaw points out that every day, 16 workers die in the United States, and many more become injured or seriously ill.

"We must challenge those who are not doing their part to step up to the plate," insisted Henshaw, adding, "And we must challenge those who are doing well to do even better. Everyone must make a contribution if we are to drive down injuries, illnesses and fatalities even further."

Saying safety and health add value to businesses, workplaces and people's lives. Henshaw noted OSHA is working hard on several fronts to accomplish its mission of improving job safety and health. Priorities for the agency include strong, fair and effective enforcement; expanded outreach, education and compliance assistance; and increased partnerships and voluntary programs, he said.

OSHA's efforts also involve attention to new and emerging issues including:

Hispanic Outreach OSHA is continuing its focus on reaching Spanish-speaking workers, who continue to suffer disproportionately higher fatality rates than others in this country. The agency is launching a national campaign with the release of two public service announcements to over 650 Spanish radio stations across the country. One spot is meant for employees and their families; the other targets employers. In coming months, OSHA will follow up with additional Spanish language outreach through the Hispanic Radio Network.

Toxic Exposure and Illness The long-term health effects of exposure to chemicals and other toxins can take years and even decades to determine. OSHA recognizes the heavy toll of occupational illness and is taking a number of steps to improve worker health in America, according to Henshaw. One is a respiratory disease study being undertaken in cooperation with the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to improve outreach, compliance assistance and enforcement efforts relating to specific contaminants and industries. The agency is also working on a health targeting system, similar to one used to guide enforcement efforts in general industry.

Enhanced Enforcement Last month, the agency announced its Enhanced Enforcement Program to target employers who have a history of the most severe safety and health violations. The new approach is helping OSHA focus on employers who willfully and repeatedly expose their workers to the most serious hazards, refuse to correct violations and violate their safety and health agreements. The concentration on high-gravity violators strengthens the agency's enforcement program and enhanced focus on corporate-wide offenders.

Construction Partnerships Despite the best efforts of many in industry, labor and government, fatality rates in the construction industry have remained stubbornly high, Henshaw admits, but he pointed out a new focus on construction partnerships is beginning to show dramatic results. In Idaho, Ohio and Wisconsin, partnerships are significantly bringing down injury and illness rates on a number of construction sites, including the Lambeau Field remodeling project in Green Bay. In St. Louis, contractors and unions joined with OSHA in a program recognizing construction sites that enjoyed zero fatalities.

Emergency Preparedness With the threat of terrorist events a concern, OSHA is working with other government agencies to prepare for a national response in the event of a crisis or attack. This week the agency released an Evacuation Planning Matrix to help employers plan for emergency response. The on-line resource provides tools to help employers assess risk and develop evacuation plans to protect their workers. It is modeled on the Anthrax Matrix that OSHA developed last year.

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