THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY SECRETARY OR LABOR BOB REICH, OSHA ADMINISTRATOR JOSEPH DEAR, VICE PRESIDENT'S SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR DR. ELAINE KAMARCK
The Briefing Room
1:45 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the daily briefing here at the White House. The President has just concluded an event where he's talked about the battle to reinvent government, and one in a continuing series of battle reports from the front lines. And I'm very happy to have the Vice President's senior policy advisor and the chief general in the battle to reinvent government with us today, Dr. Elaine Kamarck. And Elaine will talk for a little bit and also introduce Secretary of Labor Bob Reich, who we are delighted to have with us today.
DR. KAMARCK: As you may or may not remember, this is the third in a series of announcements on reforming the regulatory structure of the United States government the President began in February by issuing a series of directives to regulators across the government. Then in March, we announced major reforms involving the environment, drug and medical device regulations. And today we announced a major reinvention of OSHA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
We will have more regulatory reform announcements in the weeks and months ahead. But today I'd like to concentrate on OSHA. I would like to introduce -- we have available, and I will ask Secretary Reich to speak, obviously, Secretary of Reich, Secretary of Labor; OSHA Director Joe Dear; OIRA Sally Katzen. And also available for comment later on will be Pete Correll, the CEO of Georgia Pacific who was at the President's event today -- actually, he's in the back there -- and Bill Freeman, who is the OSHA employee from Maine who came up with the OSHA 200 idea which we are nationalizing today.
To begin the briefing let me introduce Secretary Bob Reich.
SECRETARY REICH: Thank you, Elaine.
Worker health and safety continues to be a major problem in the United States. Seventeen workers a day are being killed on the job because of equipment that is not functioning, because of safety hazards that have not been corrected. Fifty-six thousand workers die each year because of accidents or injuries or illnesses at the workplace -- 56,000.
Now, often these are workers at the front line. These often are blue-collar or pink-collar workers. They're not making a great deal of money, but they are people who count in our society. They're not heard from very often in America, but their lives and their limbs are at stake.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was founded in 1970; it was bipartisan. Now, over the last 25 years, it has accomplished a great deal. Workplace deaths have been cut by 50 percent. But there is still a huge challenge in front of us.
Now, over that 25 years, not to be partisan about it, Democrats have been in charge six years. And over the last two, we have set about reforming the way in which we achieve occupational safety and health in America. When we got here we began working very hard to make sure that it was not simply a matter of inspections and penalties and citations, because that won't do it.
There are 2,000 inspectors in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. There are six million workplaces in America. Now, you just do the mathematics. If you have 2,000 inspectors and six million workplaces, there's no way you're going to be able to inspect on a regular basis every single workplace and root out the problems that exist with regard to occupational safety and health.
So one of the innovations that we move forward, beginning in Maine, state of Maine -- did a pilot project in Maine -- and found that if we took 200 Maine businesses that had some safety and health problems and gave them a choice -- we said either you can subscribe to the old inspection routine in which you are inspected and fined, or you can develop a safety and health program with your workers to root out safety and health problems before they occur, prevent the hazards before they take a toll on life and limb and in illnesses. And 98 percent of them said, okay, we're going to set up worker management safety and health programs.
The net result of that project after two years has been very dramatic. We have seen an extraordinary reduction in workplace injuries and illnesses because workers and managers are working together to prevent them before they occur. In fact, they came up with many, many more hazards than OSHA inspectors ever could have found on their own. And they prevented the hazards.
So we are expanding that model on a national basis. We are basically offering to employers around the nation a choice: the old OSHA inspection, citation, penalty, maybe court proceedings -- if you want the old OSHA, we don't have too many inspectors, but if you want the old OSHA, if you want to take your chances, fine. Or you can set up a worker health and safety program. Your workers actively involved, training your workers in health and safety, abating, reducing hazards before they actually become accidents and injuries.
And if you do that, if you enter into this kind of second option, we in the government will give you the benefit of the doubt. If there is an injury, if there is a problem, we will work with you. If there is a citation or if there is any kind of a violation, we will not very often give you a penalty. If you're making good progress toward improving worker health and safety, we'll work -- we'll give you technical assistance if you're making a good- faith effort.
Again, our interest is in worker health and safety, not in citation, not in inspections -- it's worker health and safety. And the best employers in this country are already moving in that direction. We want more employers to be involved.
Now, contrast this approach with what the Republicans are proposing -- a 50-percent cut in OSHA's budget. As I said, there are only 2,000 inspectors right now for six million workplaces. What is a 50-percent cut in the budget going to do in terms of protecting American's health and safety and work? Again, it's not too difficult to figure out. You cut it by 50 percent, you're going to have 50 percent less ability to instigate and insure health and safety.
They also, through their risk assessment bill, are going to mire OSHA and other regulatory agencies in red tape. Risk assessment that is really not just cost benefit analysis -- I think everybody agrees that cost and benefit -- weighing the cost and benefits makes a lot of sense -- but risk assessment which is really regulatory sclerosis -- 60 separate steps at which any party, particularly any business party, anybody objecting can go to court, can get a review, can slow down the entire process if not stop the entire process.
So which is it going to be? Is it going to be a health and safety program in which employees and employers are actively involved and engaged in preventing workplace injuries before they occur -- with OSHA in the background, OSHA in the background carrying a big stick? There are going to be irresponsible employers. It's necessary sometimes for OSHA to come down very hard on irresponsibility, but offering assistance as well to the responsible employers. But that's one model.
Or is it going to be simply cutting the budget and imposing risk assessment standards which will basically close down a lot of the capacity we have in government to ensure worker health and safety? I think the choice is very clear. I think we are heading in a responsible direction. I don't think the other direction is fair to American workers.
Now, let me, if I may, let me just introduce to you Joe Dear, who is standing patiently here. Joe is the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health on whose shoulders much of this reform effort and the responsibility hangs, and who has done an extraordinary job so far.
So let me take your questions. Elaine, you'll join us, and Sally, Joe or I will take any questions you have.
Q Where does this legislation stand now in both Houses -- a moratorium and so forth?
SECRETARY REICH: The regulatory legislation -- Sally, do you want to --
DIRECTOR KATZEN: The moratorium bill passed the House. The Senate shows a different path, a 45-day layover. And they're in sort of a quasi-conference. The ball is in the House's court as they try to decide whether they'll come back with the 45-day layover, or they're also talking about having a limited moratorium. They want a list of regulations they don't like that they'd like to put on it.
Now the underlying bill, the risk bill, the cost-benefit bill as well, again, that passed the House. The Senate, we've had three bills reported out -- one by Government Affairs, one by Energy, and one by Judiciary. And currently the Republicans are, I guess, collating the three versions to bring a single bill to the Senate floor. The expectation is that it will be after Memorial Day.
Q Secretary Reich, these 17 workers a day that are killed, are there any particular industries that are prevalent? Is there a pattern? And how would this rate be affected by your proposal, and how would it be affected by the Republicans plan?
SECRETARY REICH: Many of these injuries and illnesses occur in some of the heavy industrial sectors of the economy. We're also, however, seeing new kinds of illnesses coming out of offices -- illnesses having to do with air quality, illnesses having to do with repetitive motion problems. The economy is changing, but the problems workers have in the economy in terms of safety and health are very real even in the new economy.
The second part of your question -- these proposals would give employers incentives, an enormous incentive to enlist workers in preventing accidents and injuries before they occur. The point is with 2,000 inspectors, and six million workplaces, and 95 million workers who are subjected to potentially dangerous conditions, it is simply impossible to fully protect workers unless employers and employees are engaged in preventing injuries before they occur.
And what we've seen around the country -- it's not just Maine. Maine was a specific pilot project at which we tried out this particular idea. But around the country we have seen in Oregon, in Washington State, other places where worker management committees have been set up to prevent illnesses and injuries before they occur, we have seen enormous successes -- injury rates, absenteeism coming down; worker compensation costs coming down as well.
Q Secretary Reich, would you favor merging ENSHA into OSHA as the Republicans have proposed?
SECRETARY REICH: Frankly, I am not a big fan of moving around organizational boxes. I have been here for two years, and I was here also, at least in the federal government, in the Carter administration and part of the Ford administration. I have seen organizational boxes change, but unless the fundamentals change -- that is, what is it that people are doing within those organizational boxes -- just moving around the boxes makes absolutely no sense at all. There is no great overhead saving. In fact, if anything, you are creating more costs in terms of just bureaucratic uncertainty and new organizations.
Q Who are the special interests the President keeps referring to as trying to block any regulation?
SECRETARY REICH: Well, it depends on what we're talking about. In terms of OSHA, workplace safety and health, unfortunately, there are employer organizations -- and I'm not going to use this opportunity to name them, but it's very easy to find them -- major employer or --
Q Chamber of Commerce, these --
SECRETARY REICH: You said them. Yes, there are -- (laughter) -- there are employer organizations who resist the kind of reforms we are talking about. Some of them -- and, again, I don't want to tar it with too broad a brush, but there are some employer organizations, some trade associations in town, who look at this Republican Congress and say, ah, hah, it's now our turn to basically gut worker protections.
We're not going to stand for that, and I don't think American workers are going to stand for it. We want sensible regulations, sensible enforcement, common-sensical enforcement, does not impose unnecessary burdens on employers, but which protect American workers. Again, worker health and safety is a major issue in America.
Q Doesn't it protect the employer also?
SECRETARY REICH: It protects the employer also. This is good for business in the long-term. It means reduced worker compensation costs. It means the employer gets a reputation for being a good employer. We have seen around the country -- this is the same discussion we have about training workers, about giving them skills, about not firing them unless you absolutely have to, developing the capacities of your work force, investing in human capital, making sure your workers are skilled and healthy. That is the most important thing -- among the most important things that employers can do to make profit over the long-term.
Again, we've seen it again and again and again. Unfortunately, capital markets often spend a lot of time looking at the short-term rather than the long-term.
Q Secretary Reich, how will OSHA employees be affected by this? Will there be layoffs and will there be many moved out of headquarters?
SECRETARY REICH: No, there will not be layoffs. OSHA employees right now -- and Joe can speak to this as well -- are being trained and have been over the last two years -- this is the culmination of an effort that started two years ago when we got here -- trained not simply to find violations and impose sanctions, but trained to offer advice and help and encourage management and labor to find problems before injuries occur.
So it's a matter of a different emphasis in training, a different reward structure. We're not simply going to reward OSHA offices and OSHA inspectors for the number of inspections, the number of citations, the amount of penalties. We are going to change -- in fact, we have been changing the reward structure. The goal is healthy and safer workplaces.
Joe, if you want to get in here at all, please don't hesitate. (Laughter.)
ADMINISTRATOR DEAR: You're doing fine.
Q Would you support changing the fine structure that they're talking about in the House?
SECRETARY REICH: We are changing the fine structure. Joe, why don't you --
ADMINISTRATOR DEAR: One of the principal purposes of the change is recognizing the employers' good-faith effort when they have a safety and health program. They've involved their workers in the development and implementation of that program and they're finding in fixing real hazards.
One of the things the old OSHA used to do was not make a distinction when there was a violation. If it's a violation, you get a penalty. What the new program will do is, if that good-faith effort is present, will say, we may not cite the hazard at all if it's fixed on the spot. If it can't be fixed on the spot, we'll note it. But we will waive up to 100 percent of the penalty.
So without statutorily revising the penalty structure, we have enough flexibility to recognize employers who are reducing their injuries and illnesses by implementing comprehensive safety and health programs.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END2:03 P.M. EDT