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MSHA News Release No. 95-024
Mine Safety and Health Administration
Contact: (703) 235-1452

June 28, 1995

REICH TESTIFIES ON PROPOSED LEGISLATION AFFECTING OSHA, MSHA

Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich today told Congress that proposed legislation to change workplace safety laws would dismantle worker protections and endanger American workers.

At a hearing on the proposed "Safety and Health Improvement and Regulatory Reform Act of 1995" (HR 1834) before the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, Reich said the bill would weaken the ability of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to enforce safety regulations and would deprive miners of special safety protections currently assured under a separate law enforced by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

"Since its creation in 1970, OSHA has improved the lives of America's working families," Reich testified. "Over these last 25 years, the workplace fatality rate has declined 57 percent -- thanks largely to the agency's protective standards and enforcement program.

"But despite this progress -- which has been aided substantially by many responsible employers -- we still have a long way to go. For example, even in our new economy, work- related accidents and illnesses still cost an estimated 56,000 lives each year -- more than the total number of Americans killed during the entire Vietnam War. Each day, another 6,000 workers are injured on the job.

"Each of these incidents could have been prevented by compliance with OSHA's existing regulations. The need for a strong OSHA remains. At the same time, I recognize that OSHA has focused too much on processes and activity and not enough on safety and health. Make no mistake -- OSHA is changing the way it does business."

In spite of OSHA's progress, Reich said this legislation "would provide all employers -- including those who disregard worker safety -- with a host of exemptions and defenses against OSHA enforcement. It leaves us with a choice: reform or wrecking ball?"

Reich said OSHA has focused on preventing workplace accidents, but this legislation would abandon that focus by prohibiting OSHA from issuing citations and penalties in the first instance unless workers are killed or injured or an imminent danger is present.

"In addition, OSHA's enforcement program would be limited to no more than 50 percent of the agency's budget and more than half of American businesses would be exempt from OSHA's general inspection program."

Reich said the proposed law would repeal OSHA's general duty clause, which requires employers to protect workers from all recognizable hazards likely to cause death or serious harm. It would eliminate the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which for 25 years has researched workplace hazards. The bill would ban workers from contacting OSHA about dangerous working conditions unless they first raised the problem with their employer -- even it this could trigger retribution. And it would create layers of new bureaucracy in the name of deregulation.

"OSHA's protective standards have literally made the difference between life and death for millions of American workers," said Joe Dear, head of OSHA. "Hamstringing OSHA's ability to enforce life-saving regulations would be a terrible tragedy for working men and women. This legislation makes no distinction between employers who place a high priority on safety and health in the workplace and those who treat their workers as expendable."

Protecting American miners

The proposed legislation also would pose a substantial threat to America's miners, Reich said. It would be the first federal statute ever to weaken protections for miners.

The legislation would repeal most of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 and would merge the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), with OSHA.

"Mining is one of the most dangerous industries in the country and the world," Reich said. "The work environment changes quickly -- and without notice. As one hazard is corrected, another may appear. Miners still die in explosions. Miners still die in roof falls. Miners still die in blasting accidents."

The proposed legislation, Reich said, is badly flawed. "Coal miners are five times less likely to be killed on the job than they were in 1969, and metal miners twice less likely to die -- largely because we had the Mine Act and MSHA in place. At the same time, productivity has soared.

"The Mine Act is a law that works," said Davit McAteer, MSHA assistant secretary. "It is saving lives. You don't repeal a law that is clearly preventing injuries, disease and death. Look back to 1968: 78 men died in a West Virginia coal mine explosion. In 1972, a silver mine fire claimed 91 lives. Do we really want to go back to those days?"

Under this legislation, mine inspections would be severely curtailed, even for gassy mines where the danger of explosion is high, Reich testified. Miners who stand up for safety would lose rights and remedies.

"In every respect, the ability of the federal government to protect miners would be seriously weakened," Reich said. "This is presented as a cost-cutting measure. That aim is admirable. Unfortunately, the bill would mean greater risks for miners without offering better protection for other workers."

Reich told the committee that he stands ready to cooperate in fixing problems where found. "I want to work with you to ensure than any legislative reforms make the workplace safe and healthy for the millions of men and women who make the American economy the envy of the world."