Hearing of the United States Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Serious OSHA Violations
(Prepared for delivery)
Senator Edward M. Kennedy made the following remarks today at a United States Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing.
Today we consider the important task of keeping the hardworking men and women of America safe on the job. I commend Senator Murray for holding this hearing and for her dedication to the safety and health of America's workers.
The creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970 has saved thousands of lives and prevented countless injuries. We've reduced the death rate in the workplace by 78 percent and the injury rate by 60 percent. But what was a cutting edge program 40 years ago is out of date today. The workplace is still dangerous for far too many workers. In 2006, over 5,700 workers were killed on the job, and over 4 million became ill or were injured. That's an average of 16 workers dying every day, and nearly 12,000 injured or made ill from dangerous conditions on the job.
Many of these incidents could have been prevented if OSHA had done its job. Too often, its enforcement strategy has been pick the low-hanging fruit, not go after the bigger, more complex problems. OSHA looks only at individual incidents. It doesn't investigate whether a hazard is just an example of a larger problem in the company or industry. It's as if OSHA spends all its time treating the symptoms, but ignores the underlying disease.
Many of these hazards, however, are not one-time events. Instead, they result from a company's or industry's general disregard for worker safety. An example is the poultry industry, which was the subject of a compelling series of press reports last month.
Poultry workers' health and safety is threatened every day in a variety of ways. Their hands are crippled by hours on an assembly line that moves too fast. They are forced to work when they are sick or seriously hurt, in order to create the illusion that their employer maintains a safe workplace. These problems are repeated in plant after plant throughout the poultry processing industry.
Yet, OSHA sits on the sidelines, ignoring such patterns. Every day, poultry workers are paralyzed by carpal tunnel syndrome, slip and fall on floors wet with chickens' blood, or are cut by knives that move too quickly to be controlled. OSHA, however, has reduced the number of poultry plants subject to investigations and inspections. Inspections are now at their lowest level in 15 years. Instead, OSHA issues minimal fines when its inspectors happen to note a violation.
The extent of the problem in the poultry industry is much bigger than the sum of the individual cases that come to OSHA's attention. The real problem is that too many firms in the industry have adopted a policy of sacrificing the health, or even lives, of their workers to improve the bottom line. Such an enforcement strategy does nothing to address the industry-wide attitude.
Similar willful neglect by OSHA affects the construction industry. The safety of thousands of construction workers is jeopardized every year by unsafe ladders and scaffolds. Almost exactly two years ago today, three construction workers were killed in downtown Boston when their scaffold collapsed. This kind of violation happens every day somewhere in our country.
Scaffolding accidents are symbolic of the continuing problem at OSHA. Too frequently, the same companies are cited over and over again. But OSHA's enforcement program fails to connect the dots. Instead of asking whether a company that uses unsafe scaffolds at one of its worksites is also doing so at another worksite, OSHA just walks away. Instead of investigating whether a poultry processor who is indifferent to ergonomic danger is also indifferent to the hazard posed by careless use of deadly chemicals, OSHA just walks away.
To prevent accidents, instead of only assigning blame afterward, OSHA needs to root out the source of these problems. It should look for patterns of violations across companies and industries, and fix such problems on a wide scale. A broad-based approach to enforcement has the power to transform workplace accidents from senseless losses to catalysts for changes that save lives. Every time OSHA fails to take its investigations to the next step - to the corporate or industry-wide level - it loses the opportunity to save lives in the future.
Hopefully today's hearing will encourage Congress to act. We have an impressive group of panelists, and I look forward to hearing from them.