(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), a senior member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and Chairman of the HELP Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, called for more effective OSHA penalties to protect workers.

At a Senate HELP Committee hearing, Murray heard from victim's family members and worker advocates about how OSHA penalties and a lack of criminal prosecutions are not deterring workplace deaths. Senator Murray is working to make changes to current OSHA penalties and practices through the Protect America's Workers Act

"I am deeply concerned that the fines OSHA has issued against bad actors are far too weak," Senator Murray said at today's hearing. "OSHA is simply not as strong as it could be, and should be, especially if employers are able to consider the rules optional and they believe that fines are nothing more than a cost of doing business."

Today's hearing is part of a series of actions Murray has taken to provide greater oversight of OSHA's shortcoming under the Bush administration. Murray has held hearings with injured Washington state workers, examined particularly dangerous industries, and, just last week, called for a GAO investigation on the practice of underreporting workplace injuries and illnesses.

Watch today's hearing or to read testimony from witnesses at the hearing.

Senator Murray's opening statement at today's hearing follows:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing.  And thanks to our witnesses for being here this morning.  Yesterday was Workers’ Memorial Day, a day we remember and honor those who have lost their lives on the job.  So I want to extend a special welcome to the witnesses with us today, who have lost family members to tragedies on the job – and who will testify about their experiences with OSHA and their fight for better workplace safety policies.

Mr. Chairman, each of us here shares the same goal – to ensure that every worker returns home safely to his or her family at the end of each day.  But tragically, thousands of workers are killed and millions more become hurt or sick each year on the job.  And in far too many of those cases, the cause of death or injury was preventable.

According to the AFL-CIO’s 2008 Report on Workplace Injuries and Illnesses, the number of deaths on the job has risen over the last year – especially among Hispanic workers.  The most recent job fatality data show that there were 5,840 fatal workplace injuries in 2006 – up from 5,734 fatalities the year before.  And among Hispanics, the fatality rate was 25 percent higher than that for other workers.  On average, 16 workers died every day in 2006 – and more than 11,000 were injured or made sick on the job.

OSHA has been Dangerously Ineffective

Mr. Chairman, Monday was also the 37th anniversary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which was created to enforce workplace safety laws and regulations, and to protect workers from injury, illness, and death on the job.  So I wish we were here today to celebrate how OSHA is effectively holding employers accountable for maintaining safe working conditions.  But the disturbing reality is that OSHA is not living up to its mission to make workers safer on the job.

In the last year, we have held several hearings examining OSHA’s performance.  And from my first oversight hearing on OSHA a year ago – to the hearing I held on dangerous industries earlier this month – the evidence shows that for the last seven years, OSHA has been dangerously ineffective.

I am concerned that OSHA’s enforcement strategy relies too heavily on voluntary employer compliance programs.  And I am deeply concerned that the fines OSHA has issued against bad actors are far too weak. 

Records from last year show that the average OSHA penalty after a worker died on the job was just $10,133 nationwide.  And the penalty for willful violations was just $36,720 – about half of the maximum allowable penalty.  OSHA simply cannot be as strong as it could be – and should be – if employers are able to consider the rules optional – and if they believe that fines are nothing more than a cost of doing business.

OSHA Must Enforce the Laws

And we, in the Congressional majority, are not the only ones sounding the alarm bell.  At a hearing of my Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee earlier this month, the former OSHA director under the first President Bush – Jerry Scannell – also said he believes that penalties must be significant to deter bad actors.

And that’s why we’re here today.  We want to send a clear message that one worker’s death, injury, or illness is unacceptable if it’s preventable.  It’s why I have co-sponsored the Chairman’s Protecting America’s Workers Act, which amends OSHA to expand coverage, increase penalties, and protect whistleblowers.

And it’s why the Chairman and I have asked the GAO to investigate whether OSHA is doing enough to ensure employers are accurately reporting workplace injuries and illnesses. 

Since my hearing last year, I’ve continued to hear stories about underreporting, and about OSHA’s lax efforts to ensure that employers are reporting accurately.  When it comes to the health and safety of American workers, we can’t allow OSHA just to take employers at their word.  As policy makers, we must have accurate, sound data in order ensure OSHA is doing its job.  So I’m looking forward to seeing the results of this investigation.

Workers Deserve Better Workplace Safety Oversight from the Administration

Mr. Chairman, I’m proud of the work we have done in this committee to increase oversight of OSHA.  And when it comes to worker safety, we have come a long way in this country.

But clearly, we still have more to do.  Our economy was built on the backs of hard-working Americans.  And they deserve a government that works as hard as they do to keep businesses honest about the dangers they face on the job.

Thank you.