Focus on Workplace Safety

by Joseph Main on July 16, 2010 · 2 comments

Each year across America, more than 5,000 workers are killed on the job. Another four million are injured, and thousands more will subsequently become ill or die from present day occupational exposures.

Recent tragedies—like the explosions at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia and aboard the Deepwater Horizon off the Gulf Coast—make that clear.  The news coverage is certainly fostering public awareness of the hazards facing many workers, but every day, countless other workplace injuries and deaths go largely unnoticed.

Shortly after the Upper Big Branch explosion, the President made clear his personal commitment and that of the Administration to honor the victims of this disaster by ensuring justice is served on their behalf and that an accident of this magnitude never happens again.  He told the nation “we owe [those who perished in the UBB disaster] more than prayers.  We owe them action.  We owe them accountability.  We owe them an assurance that when they go to work every day, when they enter that dark mine, they are not alone.  They ought to know that behind them there is a company that’s doing what it takes to protect them, and a government that is looking out for their safety.”

To ensure that justice is done, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is conducting a thorough and comprehensive investigation into what caused that explosion.  This investigation will be the most open and transparent in MSHA’s history.  We will be holding a number of public hearings, enabling unprecedented public participation in the investigation.

This investigation answers the President’s call for accountability, but his call for action is equally important. Addressing modern workplace hazards means equipping MSHA, as well as the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) with modern tools to enforce every employer’s obligation for the safety and health of their workers.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to testify before the House Committee on Education and Labor along with the Assistant Secretary for OSHA, Dr. David Michaels and the Solicitor of Labor, Patricia Smith.  We spoke in support of the Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010, updated legislation based on the fundamental principles that:

  • every worker is entitled to come home from work safely at the end of a shift; and
  • even in potentially dangerous industries such as mining, accidents, injuries and illnesses can be prevented when employers institute and follow safety plans, prevent hazards, and protect workers.

The legislation would close various loopholes, strengthen the penalties used to enforce existing laws and better protect the rights of workers to speak out against unsafe conditions.

For instance, under the current Occupational Safety and Health Act, serious violations – those that pose a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm to workers – are subject to a maximum civil penalty of only $7,000. Willful and repeated violations carry a maximum penalty of only $70,000. Simply put, penalties must be increased to provide a real disincentive for employers who accept worker injuries and deaths as a “cost of doing business.”

In mining, companies have taken advantage of loopholes in the current “Pattern of Violations” program and treated citations as a cost of doing business that can be delayed for years with legal challenges while miners are exposed to risk.

Under the proposed changes, MSHA would look at current mine conditions to identify patterns of recurring accidents, injuries, illnesses or citations, or orders for safety or health violations – and act accordingly.  MSHA would also have new remedial tools it can employ to improve safety and health at those mines.  The same data and criteria that MSHA uses would also be available for the public to review, enabling mine operators to monitor their own performance and change their ways before they put their miners into danger.

In addition to updating necessary enforcement tools, the Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010 would also strengthen whistleblower protections administered by OSHA and MSHA for workers in mining and in other industries.  It makes explicit that a worker may not be retaliated against for reporting injuries, illnesses or unsafe conditions to employers or to a safety and health committee, or for refusing to perform a task that the worker reasonably believes could result in serious injury or illness to the worker or to other employees.

These are all important and necessary changes that would improve the lives of working families across our nation.  After all, no job should kill or harm our workers.  And, everyone, whether they are underground in a mine, out in the ocean on an oil rig, or in a factory on the land, deserves a safe and healthful workplace.

Ed. Note: Joseph Main is the Assistant Secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration This post originally appeared on the White House Middle Class Task Force Blog.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rose M. Kolski November 5, 2010 at 6:25 pm

I worked over seventeen year in the nursing field as a certified nurse assistance’s. I agree that all employee’s should have a safe work environment and also to receive medical attention when an injury is reported.
Please address this problem of work safety and the rules employers are require to follow when an injury is reported so as not to cause unrepairable damage and disability.
I reported my injury through the change of command that I could. I was just told to keep working and threatened with being written up if I didn’t finish the shift and work the weekend. So I finished the ten hour shift with great pain , continue injury to my arms, mental stress, and worst the fear of injury to the resident on the wing I worked alone. This should not had happen to a simple treatment of rest for tennis elbow.
Due to the lack of concern for my injury, both arms sustain injuries that has lead to termination and disability both physical and mental. This at my age 50 and the enjoyment of increase wage earning , health coverage, to be able to enjoy life to the fullest has devastating damage to the will to keep going on with life. Living within a fix income and medication for three month over the income makes it impossible to stay out of debt and have hope for the future.
Please hear my emotional plead to protect all workers from injury upon injury that leads to disability. My injury was easy treatable and should of been preventable. I now have to depend on government agencies to pay the cost of continue medical treatment. I’m now not a worker with a productive wage. I have now have a life with chronic pain, continue sadness,angry and the stigma of working the system because some injuries are invisible to the eye and that is just to name a few of my struggles.
Please continue to keep labor law current and updated to protect all workers in all profession from all loses pf preventable injuries.
I plead for justice for workers who suffer from an employer uncaring work safety to employees. If they had to paid the workers wages until retirement and the benefits of health package loss, they might think twice about the reporting of injuries and send them or advice them to seek treatment without the threat of job loss.
Thank you for your continue work to keep workers safe while earning a wage and self-esteem to be able to work and after to enjoy the time away from work.

Respectfully,
Rose Kolski

2 Workplace Fatalities August 19, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Interesting fact I just saw in the BLS surevy of workplace fatalities for 2009. About 40% of the workplace fatalities were attributed to two things that OSHA does not have specific standards for: workplace violence (homicides and suicides) and traffic accidents. It appears that it will be difficult for OSHA to have an impact on the overall number of worker fatalities without standards addressing these two hazards, I guess they would be somewhat out of their jurisdiction.

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