A statement from Barack Obama on OSHA violations

Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Hearing

When a Worker is Killed: Do OSHA Penalties Enhance Workplace Safety?

Senator Barack Obama

April 29, 2008

Given that yesterday [April 28] was Workers Memorial Day, it is a fitting time to look at the Department of Labor's performance in enforcing workplace health and safety laws. And the report that the majority issued today proves that the agency is failing on the job. I thank the Chair for holding this hearing and for fulfilling this Committee's responsibility to demand that the Administration enforce the laws that protect workers.

For the last seven years, the Department of Labor has used its regulatory authority, like its sister agencies, as if its mandate were to err on the side of corporations over the public interest – even when its decisions undermine the spirit of the law and puts workers' lives at risk. The report that the majority staff has prepared, "Discounting Death: OSHA's Failure to Punish Safety Violations That Kill Workers," shows that Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) systematically imposes small fines on employers, even in cases where safety violations led to a worker's death. And it almost immediately discounts a fine if the employer contests it.

By some estimates, more than 50,000 Americans lose their lives every year due to workplace accidents or job-related illnesses. This unconscionable number of deaths in a single year roughly equals the number of American soldiers lost in battle during the entire 16-year Vietnam War. For American workers, that's about one work-related fatality every ten minutes – or 137 working families every single day who suffer a terrible tragedy, losing a father or mother, a husband or wife, a son or a daughter. In the report this committee issued today, a few of those husbands and wives and fathers and mothers express their pain of loss and deep distress that OSHA has refused to penalize firms to a level necessary to lead to safer workplaces and discourage additional deaths.

The stories included in the report remind us that there have been cases across the country where employers were cited for serious violations of our workplace safety laws but escaped with a slap on the wrist. OSHA used the informal settlement process to slash fines for employers and with each such action further undermined the deterrence effect of enforcement. And even where minimal fines were imposed, OSHA has failed to collect them in growing numbers each year. Combined, these actions invite employers to cut costs, even if it means putting their employees' lives at risk, with the assurance that the watchdog agency will not bite.

In the face of this Administration's abdication of responsibility, it is clear that Congress must play a greater role in improving workplace health and safety.

OSHA must be reinvigorated so that it can spearhead reductions in workplace fatalities, injuries, and illnesses. Public servants committed to the agency's mission of advancing worker safety and health should lead OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). In addition, Congress must fund both OSHA and MSHA at higher levels to assure that there are more inspectors to reach more of the most dangerous workplaces. Real funding levels for OSHA and MSHA have not increased during the last seven years, even though the number of workers and workplaces covered has grown significantly. These new resources would also allow OSHA to build productive relationships and partnerships with business, labor, and non-profit organizations that can reduce injuries and fatalities. Rebuilding the leadership and strengthening the funding of these agencies is a starting place for a sound workplace health and safety policy.

In addition to increasing the enforcement staff to facilitate more inspections of dangerous workplaces, OSHA needs better and more strategic enforcement tools to deter noncompliance among those employers who disregard worker protection in favor of production speed or profit.

OSHA can and should also improve how it targets inspections, so that its investigations focus on the employers and industries that pose the greatest risks to workers. It can also adapt its policies to make sure that employers do not avoid health and safety responsibilities by outsourcing work through subcontracting or misclassification of employees. OSHA enforcement should send a clear message to companies and their subcontractors about their fundamental responsibility to provide a safe workplace.

With specific regard to penalty policies, OSHA must have the requisite authority to impose meaningful penalties for noncompliance, particularly in the case of serious, repeat, and egregious violations. The bottom line is that when an employer exposes workers to serious hazards, it should pay fines that are more than just an ordinary cost of doing business.

I support legislation to strengthen OSHA's authority in this regard. The agency's "egregious penalty" policy allows OSHA to penalize the very worst employers with meaningful fines that can run as high as millions of dollars, but the policy is perpetually challenged by employers. The policy should be codified to end these challenges. And the OSH Act must be amended to strengthen criminal penalties – to enable the Department of Justice to prosecute a felony when an employer willfully causes death or serious bodily injury to a worker. Some of these changes are included in S. 1244, the Protecting America's Workers Act, a bill now pending before this Committee which I strongly support.

I also support legislation to extend the coverage of the OSH Act to the estimated 8.6 million state and local government employees who presently lack any OSHA protection. These hard-working pubic servants deserve protection from the hazards they face every day in serving their communities. Notably, the proposed Protecting America's Workers Act, which I have cosponsored, would effectuate this change.

The major features for a policy to improve workplace health and safety are clear. In fact, many of these changes do not require major legislation, but do require agency leadership and focus. The report issued today shows that this Administration is not taking its leadership responsibilities seriously.

Thank you.

Paid for by the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Campaign Assistance Fund, [phone: (703) 560-1493] and is not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee.