WASHINGTON, D.C. | June 16, 2011
Good morning. I would like to welcome our guests, and thank our witnesses for sharing their thoughts and expertise on workplace safety with the subcommittee. This week’s explosion at a chemical plant in southern Louisiana reminds us the cause of worker safety requires constant vigilance. We are deeply grateful workers were not injured in the accident, and we hope its cause will be quickly determined so future incidents can be prevented.
The Louisiana accident also underscores the diverse safety needs of our workforce. Certain jobs pose unique hazards and require different safety standards, demonstrating once again the need for federal policies that provide certainty and flexibility to our workplaces. The needs and priorities of businesses in my home state of Michigan may be very different than those in Washington, Tennessee, and Vermont. Jobs creators and workers in rural communities may face different challenges than their neighbors located in the nation’s cities. Rules and regulations handed down by Washington must reflect this important reality.
That is why state occupational safety and health programs are so important. For more than 40 years, federal law has allowed states to assume responsibility for the health and safety of its workplaces. State plans are approved and monitored by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Today, 27 states and territories administer workplace safety programs and the results of their efforts are remarkable. According to the Occupational Safety and Health State Plan Association, participating states conducted more than 61,000 inspections and identified an estimated 130,000 workplace safety violations. When compared to the federal safety program, state plans generally lead to more workplace inspections and result in more innovative safety solutions. State plans are not without faults or weaknesses; however, they strive to promote the best protections for their workers and abide by the federal requirement that they be “at least as effective” as federal safety standards.
Unfortunately, as is far too often the case with federal law, this catchy phrase has led to great confusion and frustration. As a report by the Department of Labor’s Inspector General illustrates, defining an effective plan has proven a difficult task for OSHA. In fact, the IG report found OSHA has not even evaluated its own enforcement program, which raises the question of how it could possibly measure the efficacy of state efforts.
In recent years, OSHA has stepped up its scrutiny of state plans, and in many ways, this is welcomed. We want to ensure every safety program is producing results and protecting workers. However, OSHA has not experienced this same level of scrutiny, which is why I will be asking the Government Accountability Office to conduct a comprehensive review of OSHA’s enforcement program using the same standards of success OSHA uses to evaluate state plans.
As OSHA’s scrutiny of the program has increased, so has the administration’s demands. The hallmark of the program’s success is its ability to easily adapt to the ever changing needs of local workplaces. Dictating from Washington D.C. what the workforce safety priorities should be for Sacramento, California, or Concord, New Hampshire, will further drain scarce resources and undermine the success of these state efforts to protect workers. As the IG report states, “OSHA required states to make program changes, but did not explain how the changes would improve effectiveness.” This makes little sense, especially at a time when the federal government has failed to accurately determine the success of its own worker safety program.
In conclusion, let me say that budgeting is about setting priorities and we all know these are tough fiscal times. In recent years Congress has short-changed the states, failing to meet its commitment to fully fund this program. The fault lies on both sides of the aisle. Working together, I am sure we can find waste and inefficiencies in the Department of Labor’s budget that will help get our nation’s fiscal house in order and strengthen our support of this program.
Rather than undermining the success of state workplace safety, our goal as policymakers should be to improve these important initiatives and encourage more states to take on this responsibility. If we do, federal taxpayers will get a better return on their investment, but more importantly, workers will be better protected.
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