Workers Memorial Day

Floor Speech

By:  Tom Harkin
Date: May 6, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

Mr. HARKIN. Mr. President, more than 20 years ago, family members of workers killed on the job joined with safety advocates to launch Workers Memorial Day--a day of remembrance and advocacy. To honor the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, April 28 was chosen as Workers Memorial Day.

The passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which created OSHA, was one of the monumental legislative achievements of the 20th century. This landmark legislation, passed over four decades ago, reflects the values that all Americans share: that workers shouldn't have to risk their lives to earn their livelihood, and that workers, employers, and the government must all work together to keep people safe and healthy on the job.

Since that time, workplace safety and health conditions have improved dramatically. In the year the OSH Act was enacted, our country saw 13,800 on-the-job deaths. Forty years later, in 2010, that number is down by more than 60 percent. It is without dispute that this legislation has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of American workers in its 40-year lifespan, a remarkable accomplishment.

In addition to saving lives, OSHA saves our country money. The total financial cost of job injuries and illnesses is enormous--estimated at $250 billion to $300 billion a year. Preventing illnesses and injuries before they happen makes economic sense, in addition to being the right thing to do.

So today, on Worker's Memorial Day, we celebrate the success of OSHA. But we also must acknowledge its limitations. Too many workers remain at serious risk of injury, illness or death on the job, as demonstrated by the recent fertilizer explosion in West Texas that killed at least 14 and injured over 200. In 2011, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,693 workers were killed on the job--an average of 13 workers every day--and nearly 3 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses were reported that same year. In our great State of Iowa, 93 workers died on the job in 2011. Additionally, 43 Iowans died from injuries sustained while working, and untold numbers of Iowans were injured from exposures in the workplace. We absolutely can--and must--do better.

That's why I am a co-sponsor of the Protecting America's Workers Act, a piece of legislation that would build on OSHA's successes and save the lives of countless additional workers. The bill makes commonsense reforms to bring our workplace safety laws into the 21st century, with minimal burden on the vast majority of employers that comply with the law.

One critical aspect of the Protecting America's Workers Act is that it will enhance the protection provided to workers who blow the whistle on unsafe conditions in the workplace. OSHA does not have the necessary resources to inspect every workplace in the country on a regular basis, so whistleblowers play an essential role in identifying dangerous conditions. Because OSHA enforcement is aided by whistleblowers, it is in all of our interests to protect whistleblowers from unfair retaliation so they are not afraid to come forward. But the whistleblower provision in OSHA has not been significantly amended or improved since it was enacted and has fallen far behind similar retaliation protections in other worker protection, public health, and environmental laws. The Protecting America's Workers Act will remedy that problem by strengthening whistleblower protections so more workers will feel comfortable reporting dangerous conditions and work environments can improve for all.

In addition to protecting whistleblowers, the Protecting America's Workers Act also extends OSHA protections to more workers, increases penalties for employers who break the law, enhances public accountability, and clarifies the duty of employers in providing a safe work environment. These changes together comprise a critical step towards providing a safer workplace for every worker in our country, and I plan to do everything possible to fight for this important legislation.

While we have made tremendous progress in that last 40 years under OSHA, there is much more work to be done. All Americans have the right to a safe workplace, and we should not rest until all of our fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, families, and friends can go to work each day knowing they will come home safely again each night.