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Blog: One is Too Many

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Today is Workers Memorial Day. It's a day to remember those who've been hurt or killed on the job. And it's a day to recommit to making worksites safer across the nation. Every day in America, 12 people go to work and never come home. Every year in America, 3.3 million people suffer a workplace injury from which they may never recover. These are preventable tragedies that disable our workers, devastate our families, and damage our economy.

American workers are not looking for a handout or a free lunch. They are looking for a good day's pay for a hard day's work. They just want to go to work, provide for their families, and get home in one piece.

This year, Workers Memorial Day happens to fall on OSHA's 40th anniversary. It's hard to believe that before OSHA was created in 1971, workers had no right to a safe workplace. Many Americans worked in awful conditions. It was like the Wild West for workers. Every man for himself. Every woman for herself.

If you worked in a factory, you might lose your life or limbs in a piece of heavy machinery. There was no federal law requiring safety shields to prevent amputations. If you didn't like it, they told you to quit.

If you worked on a construction site 10 stories up, you could fall to your death with one wrong step. There was no federal law requiring you to be given a safety harness. If you didn't like it, they told you to quit.

If you worked in a battery recycling plant, like my father, you could be exposed to hazardous chemicals. There was no federal law protecting you from acid burn or toxins. If you didn't like it, they told you to quit.

So as we reflect on the challenges before us, let's first appreciate how far we've come. Since OSHA's creation, workplace deaths are down 65 percent. Job-related injuries are down 67 percent. Yes, we've come a long way, but we're not there yet.

Before OSHA, 38 workers lost their lives every day on the job. Today, that number is down to 12. But one worker death, one injury, or one illness is one too many.

On my first day as Labor Secretary, I said, "There is a new sheriff in town." The comment made a few waves. I said it because I wanted employers to know that labor laws would be enforced under my watch. But any good sheriff knows that punishing the bad guys is the last resort. A good sheriff knows her first responsibility is to protect and serve.

That's why under my watch, the Labor Department is focused on being proactive, not reactive. OSHA is about helping employers do right by their workers before tragedies happen. Under my watch, we've added more than 100 inspectors to monitor worksites. We've also launched a Severe Violators Enforcement Program to give "special attention" to employers who endanger their workers. And we've strengthened compliance assistance to help small business that can't afford a full-time safety coordinator. Last year, we made over 30,000 visits to small businesses to provide free on-site safety consultations.

We're also focused on helping workers help themselves. By law, every worker has the right to safety information, the right to request an inspection, and the right to be protected from retaliation if they blow the whistle. These rights are especially important for Latino workers. Statistically, we know that immigrant Latinos are working in the most dangerous jobs. Latinos suffer workplace deaths and injuries at higher rates than their peers. Every week, 12 Latinos and Latinas die in a workplace accident. This is unacceptable.

Last spring, we held the first National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety in Houston. More than 1,000 people attended. We are now working to implement many of the great ideas that came from this forum.

We are also taking big steps at the Labor Department to improve mining safety. I will never forget the day I traveled to West Virginia after the explosion at Upper Big Branch. I made the trip to sit with the families whose loved ones were trapped in that mine. We didn't know yet that 29 men would not make it out alive.

I remember talking to an older man sitting in his car. He had black lung disease from a life spent in the mines. He was hooked up to an oxygen tank to help him breathe. Tears were running down his cheeks. His grandson was down in that mine. He turned to me and said, "It should be me down there, not him." His grandson did not make it out alive. It was one of the saddest memories of my time in public service.

In the year since that tragedy, the Labor Department has taken steps to improve mining safety so there is never another Upper Big Branch. We've stepped up our enforcement efforts. We've set stronger safety standards. And we've worked with the Justice Department to hold mine operators accountable. There is strong public support for these efforts, because mining disasters are often in the headlines. But we are just as committed to protecting workers who do not have a voice in the mainstream media.

Just this week, the Labor Department launched our HEAT campaign. It's a program to help educate workers and employers about the hazards of working outdoors. Water. Rest. Shade. These are the three cornerstones of this campaign. Without them, heat exhaustion can become fatal heat stroke for workers.

Dozens of workers die and thousands are injured each year because they don't take steps to beat the heat. Heat illness impacts roofers, baggage handlers, farm workers, landscapers and road crews. To help them, the federal government will begin including worker safety precautions in its summer heat advisories and warnings. We will visit job sites to educate employers and workers about the dangers of heat illness. And we will launch a website with tools to help laborers stay safe in the summer sun.

Let me close by saying this: Every American worker has the right to a good job. And a safe job. Today, I commemorate Workers Memorial Day -- and stand with every family that has paid the ultimate price for a loved one's hard work. Their spirit is with us. As long as I am the Labor Secretary, we will fight in their name to make workplaces safer and more secure for every working American.


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