THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT ON REINVENTING WORKER SAFETY REGULATION
Stromberg Sheet Metal Works, Inc. Washington, D.C.
12:48 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, Mr. Vice President, Secretary Reich, Mr. Dear; to our friends from Maine, all of them, for the fine work they have done. Congresswoman Norton and members of the D.C. City Council and others who are here, we're glad to be in the District of Columbia, and in one of the most interesting workplaces I've been in in a while. I want to thank the folks who work here for making us feel welcome and for taking a little time off from work to let us come in and interrupt the flow of events. I'm sure that's not a terrible burden. (Laughter.)
I want to thank Mr. Gawne for having us here. Mr. and Mrs. Gawne made us feel very welcome and they didn't waste much time in establishing the productivity of their leadership by pointing out that they have six children and 14 grandchildren, and most of them are here today. (Laughter.)
I'd also like to say a special word of appreciation to the Vice President's reinventing government team who worked so hard on this -- Elaine Kamarck is here, and many others who worked so hard on it. I thank all of them.
We have taken this business of trying to make the government work and make sense very seriously. We have worked at it steadily now for a good long while. We think it's one of the most important things we can do to make the American people believe, first of all, that their tax dollars are not being squandered, but instead are being well spent; and secondly, to fulfill some important public objectives.
Protecting the health and safety of our country's workers is an important national value. It's something we should all share. From the Triangle Shirtwaist fire back in 1911, which galvanized the conscience of our nation, to the fire in Hamlet, North Carolina, in 1991 -- which I remember so very well because 25 poultry workers were killed there and thousands and thousands of people work in the poultry industry in my home state -- we have recognized that we have a special responsibility as a people to ensure that workers are not put in undue jeopardy. We don't believe that anyone should have to endanger their personal health or their very lives to make a living for their families, to live a life of dignity.
But still, in spite of all the progress that has been made, over 6,000 Americans every year die at work. That's 17 a day. And about 50,000 more people die each year from exposure to chemicals and other hazards in the workplace. Six million Americans are injured, and the injuries alone cost our economy over $100 billion a year. So it is obvious that we still have work to do, and that to whatever extent we can reduce death and injuries in the workplace, we will not only improve the quality of life in this country, we will also reduce the cost of these terrible tragedies in ways that strengthen our economy.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been at work in this cause since it was created with bipartisan support in 1970. Since that time, workplace deaths have been cut in half. Cotton dust standard is virtually eliminated. Brown lung disease, deaths of construction workers from collapsing trenches has been cut by a third. There have been many achievements that all Americans can be proud of. And today, we should reaffirm that commitment.
But we also have to recognize that like other government regulatory agencies, OSHA can and must change to keep up with the changes and the times. We also recognize that any organization that is established and gets going in a certain direction, if it's not careful, whether it's in the public or the private sector, can wind up pursuing prerogatives that strengthen its organization rather than fulfill its fundamental mission.
That was the brilliance of the story that the Vice President told about what the main OSHA people did and how they changed -- not only replacing yesterday's government with a new government that fits the needs of an information age that is less bureaucratic and that recognizes that the way we protected workers safety in the last 25 years may not be the best way to do it in the next 25 years, but also recognizing that, frankly, sometimes the rules have simply become too complex, too specific for even the most diligent employer to follow; and that if the government awards inspections for writing citations and levying fines more than ensuring safety, there's a chance you could get more citations, more fines, more hassle and no more safety.
So we believe that in this, as in every other area, we have to constantly innovate. And we're announcing these initiatives today.
Let me say to you that of all the things we've done in reinventing government, this one has a particular meaning to me because of the experience I had for so many years as the governor of my state. We were one of 29 states, first of all, that had a partnership with OSHA. And we worked hard to help implement the worker standards that the national government set with state people who worked in partnership with manufacturers, because in the 1980s, when manufacturing was going downhill in America, we were increasing manufacturing employment in my state, partly because we had that kind of partnership.
I was interested in it from a human perspective because I spent so many hours, countless hours, in literally hundreds of factories in my state talking to the people who worked in the factories, watching what they did. And finally, I became personally acquainted with it because for several months in one year I was governor, I took a day off a month to work in manufacturing operations. That will give you a clear perspective about wanting to be safe in the workplace.
I worked in a food processing plant. I worked in a joist manufacturing operation. I helped to make refrigerators from 3:00 p.m. to midnight one night on a Friday night. And I even worked in an oil refinery. And it gave me a keen appreciation, first of all, for the need of people who are operating these things to be treated in a fair and sensible way by the government so people could make a living and they could make a profit; and second, for the absolute imperative for people to be able to work in a safe and secure environment.
Unless you've ever seen one of those huge metal stamping machines come down on a piece of sheet metal, you can't imagine what it was like to think about the days when people had to put their hands under those machines with no guards, knowing one mistake would be the hand would be gone forever. Unless you've actually seen things like that, it is hard to visualize what is at stake here.
We believe in this country that you can do the right thing and do well. We believe that is a general principle that we have to have throughout the economy. Mr. Correll, here from Georgia Pacific -- I've been in every single one of his operations in our home state. And they have done some remarkable things. I believe you can do the right thing and do well. And we have to see day in and day out that we have a government that makes sure we're all trying to do the right thing and that we can do well at the same time.
That is what we are trying to do today -- saying to businesses, you have choice. You can put in place a health and safety program that involves your workers and that tries to find and fix hazards before an accident happens and OSHA will be a partner. There will be reduced penalties or, in some cases, no penalties at all. You will be inspected rarely, if ever. You will get help when you want to comply. But if a business chooses not to act responsibly and puts its workers at risk, then there must be vigorous enforcement and consequences that are serious when violations are serious.
This new approach is not an abstract one. We have seen it. It works in Maine. If it worked in Maine, it will work everywhere else. To borrow a phrase from politics, I hope when it comes to worker safety, as Maine goes, so goes the nation. (Laughter.)
Secondly, we need to make sure that worker safety rules are as simple and sensible and flexible as they can be. You've already heard the Vice President say that OSHA will now allow plastic gas cans on construction sites. That may not sound like a big deal, but it's absolutely maddening if you're on the other side of a dumb regulation like that. Until now, OSHA required that work site first aid kits be approved by a doctor. That doesn't make a lot of sense. So, from now on, you can buy one at the drugstore.
This is just a down payment on the things we intend to do. As part of the page-by-page regulatory review I ordered earlier this year, on June 1st, I expect to see dozens and dozens more rules on my desk ready to be discarded or fixed, including hundreds of pages of detailed standards that have literally been on the books unchanged since the early 1970s.
The third thing we intend to do is to extend our reinvention to the way men and women on the front lines work with employees and businesses to promote safety. I'm interested in results, not red tape. The Vice President says that all the time; we're determined to make that the rule of the land -- in worker safety, in the environment, in every other area that we can possibly extend it to.
We're interested in prevention, not punishment. It would suit me if we had a year in this country where OSHA did not levy a single fine, because if that happened, we'd have safer workplaces, more productive businesses, we'd be making more money with happier people going to work every day. (Applause.)
We are going to redesign OSHA's offices, five of them every quarter, to produce safety, not just citations. We're cutting the time between the complaint by a worker and the resolution of a problem in half. We're focusing inspections on the gravest hazards. Already if a construction site has a strong health and safety program, inspectors are limited to the biggest hazards, lasting a few hours, not a few days. Now we'll expand that to other industries as well.
We want to use common sense and market incentives to save lives. Last year the OSHA office in Parsipanny, New Jersey, had an idea -- rather than finding a hazard, writing a citation, fighting for months about it, why not give the employer a financial incentive to simply fix it on the spot? That leaves more safety and much less hassle. Lives are already being saved there too. And today, we are determined to expand this so-called quick fix program nationwide. There really are some quick fixes when you're dealing with stale bureaucracy, and we intend to find them all and put them into effect. Giving employers a choice, common sense regulation, common sense enforcement -- that will be the new OSHA -- the right way to protect the safety of people in the American workplace.
But even as we take these steps, we have to recognize that there is a very different approach at work here in Washington. The leadership of the new Congress is mounting an assault on our ability to protect people in the workplace at all. Responding to the entreaties of powerful interest, they are ready to throw the baby out with the bath water. And in so doing, to put at risk the health and safety of millions of ordinary American workers. They're not trying to reform the system of worker protection as we are, but instead to dismantle it, and therefore, to destroy our ability to destroy its fundamental purpose.
The budget proposed in the Senate would cut in half the funding for worker health and safety, decimating enforcement, research and even compliance assistance -- something that I've found in my own personal experience to be the most important thing of all with employers of goodwill. The House budget would even eliminate outright the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. They say they don't want red tape, but this is an agency with no inspectors -- the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. They say we should be guided by better scientific evidence in our work, and I agree. This agency exists solely to give us better evidence to guide our work. The Safety and Health Institute does important work, it doesn't cost a lot of money, and we ought to preserve it.
The regulatory legislation moving through Congress, which was literally written by lobbyists who then wrote speeches for the members to explain what it is they were introducing and supporting, would tie worker protection efforts up in knots. It would override every health and safety standard on the books and let special interest dictate the regulatory process. They have proposed freezing all federal regulations and have gone after the worker protection standards with a little bit of extra gusto. They don't want rigorous reform. It looks to me like they want rigor mortis. (Laughter.)
Now, I am the last person in the world to stand up here and defend some dumb rule, regulation or practice, or people who say that people who are elected come and go; we'll be here in this agency forever; you do it our way or not at all. But we have proved -- we have proved -- that most federal employees want to do the right thing; that they want the American people to do right and to do well. We have proved that we can change the culture of bureaucracy. And we're going to do more of it.
So we should reform. We absolutely should. But we should not roll back our commitment to worker safety. Remember, there's still a lot of folks out there working in situations that are dangerous. And not every workplace can make -- be made 100 percent safe. I know that. And workers have a responsibility to take care of their own safety and to be careful and to be diligent. I know that. But we have a public responsibility that all of us share as Americans to work for safer workplaces.
If we take that seriously and we apply ourselves to the task in the way the Vice President and the Secretary of Labor have outlined today, if we follow the example of the fine OSHA leaders, business leaders, union leaders like those we recognized in Maine today, we can do what we need to do. We can do what we need to do, and still pursue the public interest.
We do not have to grow the American economy by going back to the time when we acted as if worker safety doesn't matter. It does matter. It matters a lot to people. And just because the government has been slow on the uptake in the past, and every now and then somebody makes a mistake and overreaches, doesn't mean we can walk away from our fundamental public duty.
So let's continue on this path. Let's change this thing. Let's make it work. Let's lift unnecessary burdens and keep making sure we're committed to the health and welfare of the American workers so we can do right and do well.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
END1:06 P.M. EDT