September 5, 2011 Liz Borkowski, MPH 3Comment

The Department of Labor’s Labor Day 2011 website features some interesting historical info on this holiday, and an address from Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis that focuses on job creation. What I found particularly interesting was an op-ed by Secretary Solis – one of many linked from the site’s News page – published Friday in The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. It begins:

On Labor Day, we honor the contributions working men and women have made throughout history to the strength and prosperity of our nation. There are many, and they deserve the tribute.

But throughout our nation’s history, there have also been too many workplace related deaths and injuries. That’s part of our Labor Day past. My goal is to make sure that workers are safe and healthy today and in the future.

Twelve workers die every day on the job, and another 3.3 million Americans are seriously injured each year. One workplace injury or fatality is one too many.

As a nation, we’ve made significant progress on workplace safety since Congress created the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration more than 40 years ago. OSHA’s good work has brought about historic declines in workplace fatalities, injuries and illnesses.

These problems are already familiar to our regular readers. What came as a pleasant surprise given recent disappointments, though, was this section from Secretary Solis:

While compliance with workplace safety rules does have costs, the cost of not fixing unsafe or deadly workplaces is far greater–for workers, for their families and for their employers.

Studies of workplace injuries and illnesses estimate the total costs on businesses to range from $149 billion to $181 billion annually. A sobering report released last March found the most disabling injuries — those that keep employees away from work for six days or more — cost U.S. employers more than $53 billion per year.

To put it another way, U.S. businesses spend more than $1 billion every week to compensate working families for sickness, injury and death caused by their jobs.

… The moral argument is clear: Americans who work hard to provide for their families have a right to expect their employer will take steps to protect them from breathing lethal toxins, falling from unsecured construction platforms, losing fingers in factory machinery and dying from heat stroke

The economic argument is equally clear: Workplace safety regulations and vigorous enforcement not only save lives, they save profits and revenues companies can use to reinvest in the American worker.

It’s good to hear a member of the Obama administration pushing back against the idea that regulation is a financial burden on businesses and therefore must be stalled. Secretary Solis is clear here that failure to comply with regulations costs lives and money – and the employers who cut corners on safety bear some of the cost of the consequences.

3 thoughts on “A Labor Day Message from Secretary of Labor Solis

  1. Sorry, I’m not as enthusiastic about this op-ed as you are. Solis only made the case that occupational health and safety are good for employers. We need someone to say that profits be damned, if a job is unsafe it will be stopped and the employer fined. We can’t allow the evaluation of regulations to take only costs into account. Each regulation has benefits as well, otherwise there’s no point to them. We need to argue about those benefits and show how widely they are shared.

  2. I’m not comforted either by Secretary Solis’ statements about the positive effects of worker safety regulations. It’s one thing to make a general statement that worker safety standards save lives and save employers money. It’d be quite another if she described specific OSHA proposed rules designed to do exactly that that she’s committed to publish. The March 2010 report the Secretary refers to is the 2010 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index. The largest share (25%) of the $53 Billion cost to businesses are injuries related to lifting, pushing, pulling, holding, carrying, and throwing—-overexertion injuries (a.k.a., ERGONOMIC injuries)—about which her Department has no regulatory proposal. The Secretary is noticeably silent about specific proposed rules in the works at her agencies, such as an injury and illness prevention program requirement by OSHA or a rule to prevent black lung disease by MSHA. I’d feel more assured by her statements if she’d mentioned these specific rules and told us when workers and employers will reap the benefits of them.

  3. You’re both right that this statement is less than what we’d hope for from a Secretary of Labor. I only see it as a positive development because so much of the rhetoric from the Obama administration has perpetuated the erroneous idea that regulation is necessarily bad for business. The fact that I was pleased to see this op-ed is indicative of how far my expectations for this administration have fallen.

    I do think it’s worth emphasizing that effective regulation can save employers money, because that might reduce the considerable resistance against it. (Though such points should always be in addition to, not instead of, a reminder that workers’ lives and health are the primary objective.) Celeste, you’re right that it would be a more powerful argument if it were made regarding a specific rule.

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