Solis pointed out that Texas has the “dubious distinction” of more workers dying than other state.
“In 2008, there were 67 fatalities, and in 2009 there already have been 33. And even more unbearable, Hispanic fatalities in construction continue to rise, increase by 125 percent from 1992 to 2005. These are men and women with families who leave spouses and children without parents,” she said.
Beginning in July, Solis said, OSHA will address this problem by launching a new major construction safety focus in the state of Texas. Compliance officers will be brought in from around the country to focus on preventing construction fatalities in the state. In the past, Solis pointed out, OSHA has had success in curbing construction deaths with similar efforts.
Back in Business
In addition to the Texas construction safety initiative, Solis spoke about improving workplace health and safety throughout the country.
“The government has a fundamental responsibility to protect workers from unsafe workplaces and protect workers from unjust work practices. We’re serious about workplace protection and workplace health and we’re serious about workplace safety,” Solis said. “As I have said since my first day on the job – the Department of Labor is back in the enforcement business.”
Solis added that as long as she served as Secretary of Labor, she will “go after anyone who negligently puts workers’ lives at risk.”
“Some will try to frame this issue as pinning workers against business, but we all know the vast majority of American businesses care deeply about work and safety of employees,” she continued. “I stand here today to tell business owners, both large and small, that we want to work with you, we want to partner with you.”
Solis also discussed pandemic preparedness and said the Department of Labor is working with the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, NIOSH, CDC and other federal agencies to help protect the health of workers and others whose jobs put them at risk of exposure.
“Everyone in his audience can play a vital role in protecting America. Every business, every organization, every worksite needs to develop a test emergency plan to protect employees in the workplace,” she told the crowd. “Workplace safety is everyone’s business, and today I call upon everyone in America to spend time today talking with each other on how to stay safe and healthy on the job and how to do a better job looking out for each other.”
Still Waiting for OSHA Administrator
In her remarks to the press following the opening session, Solis explained why an acting OSHA administrator was selected while the permanent administrator slot still is open.
“The acting position is very important, and I didn’t want to wait,” she said. “The urgency is basically the result of what is happening around the country,” she said. “[Jordan] Barab is an outstanding candidate for that.”
Solis said President Obama will nominate someone to serve as OSHA administrator, “but again, that takes time.”
“I have to be truthful for you: I already have individuals going through the pipelines, still have no vote,” she said, and urged people to appeal to for senators’ support on this issue.
“I am very impressed with insight and knowledge that [Barab] has,” Solis added. “I have a team ready to go, we’ll be doing what we can, especially focusing on Texas. We’re here to also help provide assistance, outreach information and hopefully technical assistance that is sorely needed.”
A Return to Respect
Solis also responded to a question from EHS Today about the recent GAO report addressing problems with OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP).
“For the most part, I tend to agree with members of the House and Senate who have had questions about our enforcement capabilities,” she said. “I am very much wanting to see how we can improve our compliance and beef up our enforcement unit. It’s fair to say that’s a direction we’re going in.”
Solis added that with her fiscal year 2010 budget, which requested an increase in funds for enforcement and workplace safety and health programs, also will help OSHA get back on track.
“I would like to see a return to the respect that OSHA needs and that our community and business community needs,” Solis said. “[OSHA] shouldn’t be viewed as an organization with a bad name. We’re going to get rid of that in OSHA.”