Workers’ Memorial Day: OSHA’s Michaels Testifies Before the Senate

April 28, 2010
On the eve of Workers’ Memorial Day, OSHA Administrator David Michaels testified at a Senate hearing, where he stressed that the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act must be updated in order to better protect American workers from injuries and death.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing addressed mine safety in response to the recent Upper Big Branch Mine tragedy, which left 29 coal miners dead, as well as occupational safety in general.

“We must think seriously and act courageously to ensure that OSHA has the tools it needs to enforce safe working conditions,” Michaels said in his testimony. “Good jobs are safe jobs, and American workers still face unacceptable hazards.”

According to Michaels, too often, employers compare the benefits of not complying with safety laws to the costs of complying; if compliance costs outweigh the penalties for breaking the law, they “opt to gamble with their workers’ lives.”

In his written testimony, Michaels called this a ‘catch me if you can’ approach to safety and health – an approach Michaels said was apparent in the Upper Big Branch tragedy and “what we at OSHA see far too often in the workplaces we visit.”

The OSH Act and PAWA

For OSHA to accomplish its mission of protecting workers, Michaels said “major changes” must be made to the OSH Act, which has not been significantly modified in its nearly 40-year history. He discussed the proposed Injury and Illness Prevention Program that was introduced April 26 in the agency’s regulatory agenda and would require employers to create and implement a plan for identifying and remediating hazards. Michaels called this proposal a common sense rule that would ask employers to “Find and Fix” workplace safety and health hazards.

In addition, Michaels called attention to OSHA’s new initiative to modify outdated penalty formulas to raise penalties, as well as the new Severe Violators Enforcement Program, which would focus on “repeatedly recalcitrant employers.”

“While important, both of these administrative measures are severely limited by constraints of current law,” Michaels pointed out. “The administration supports the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA), which makes meaningful and substantial statutory changes to OSHA’s penalty structure and enforcement program.”

Among other provisions, PAWA would improve whistleblower protections, extend OSHA coverage to public sector employees, expand the rights of workers and victims’ families, increase monetary penalties and update the criminal penalty provisions.

Michaels also pointed out in his written testimony that currently, “OSHA cannot force employers to fix an identified workplace hazard if the employer has contested the violation until after the contest is decided,” which he called a major obstacle to protecting workers through the OSH Act.

Following his testimony, Michaels briefly touched on the Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP), emphasizing that while VPP is a good and useful program, OSHA currently must focus its resources on employers who put workers at risk.

“[A]s we prepare to observe Workers’ Memorial Day … we realize that our work is far from done,” Michaels said during the hearing. “To take from President Obama’s statement last week in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, we owe all workers action. We owe them accountability. We owe them assurance that when they go to work every day they are not alone. They ought to know that behind them is a government that is looking out for their safety.”

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