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Jupiter, Fla.—When it comes to workplace safety, the goals of employers and workers are not mutually exclusive, according to Susan Harthill, the deputy solicitor of labor for national operations at the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).
"A healthy workforce is a productive workforce," Harthill said during a general session of the American Bar Association's Occupational Safety and Health Law Midwinter Meeting on March 8.
The solicitor of labor's office assists the DOL in accomplishing its objectives through legal actions, such as participating in litigation and alternative dispute resolution activities and developing regulations and standards.
The solicitor's office is committed to achieving Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) goals, Harthill added, which include improving workplace safety and health and promoting fair and high-quality work environments.
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And there's a lot of work to do. She said the workplace accident and illness numbers are a sobering reminder of this.
There were over 4,836 workplace fatalities in 2015, according to recently issued data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
"That's 93 deaths per week or 13 deaths per day," Harthill said. In one case, she said, a worker plummeted 12 stories to his death.
The BLS also reported about 3 million workplace injuries and illnesses in 2015. The list of injuries and illnesses includes amputations, cancer and egregious burns.
There are tremendous human costs, but the business costs are also significant, she said. Nonfatal workplace injuries resulted in 902,000 days away from work in 2015 with a median of eight missed workdays per injured employee.
"Our aim at the solicitor's office is to make sure workplaces are safe for workers through enforcement of the OSH Act [Occupational Safety and Health Act]," Harthill said.
"We know our resources are finite and that means we have to be strategic."
That's why the office has targeted enforcement efforts and employer outreach as key priorities.
Construction industry workers can be crushed or suffocated by falling rock and debris if they don't have the proper safety equipment, Harthill said. But employees who keep their feet on solid ground are also prone to injury and illness, particularly in health care, where exposure to needles, blood-borne pathogens and medical equipment create unique risks.
The solicitor's office targets repeat and egregious offenders in these industries, she said. It focuses on "the most recalcitrant violators."
Some willful OSH Act violations have resulted in fines of $100,000 to $500,000, she recalled, though these fines are often contested and businesses try to get them reduced.
When investigators find a violation, they will usually look at the whole enterprise to see if a problem exists companywide. This is so employers can fix any systemic issues, she said.
Harthill noted that OSHA and the solicitor's office are also deeply committed to investigating whistle-blower complaints. OSHA is charged with enforcing 21 whistle-blower statutes in addition to the OSH Act.
The agency receives about 3,000 whistle-blower complaints each year.
It is vital for employees to bring attention to dangerous working conditions, she said. And it's important to remind employers that they shouldn't feel they have to cut corners on safety to be competitive.
She encouraged employers to take advantage of voluntary OSHA programs that offer free and confidential occupational safety and health guidance. These are separate from enforcement and don't result in penalties, she said.
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