Labor Secretary Acosta Defends Compliance Assistance Approach

"Enforcement is critically important, but it will not solve every problem," he said at the VPPPA Safety+ symposium here at the Gaylord Opryland Convention Center.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Strong enforcement against safety and health violators is critical but not sufficient by itself, U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta told attendees Aug. 28 at the VPPPA Safety+ annual national conference taking place here. The setting is the Gaylord Opryland and its convention center, which is located on the second level beside the giant Delta Island atrium, a distinguishing feature of Gaylord hotels.

U.S. safety professionals know little about Acosta; he has not spoken at any previous major U.S. safety show during his tenure as secretary. Sworn in April 28, 2017, an appointee of President Donald J. Trump, Acosta previously was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida. He spoke Aug. 28 about one criminal case during his tenure there, where a cruise line was prosecuted for a boiler explosion aboard one of its ships, an incident in which 10 workers were seriously injured and eight died, even though the cruise line had previously been warned of problems in the boiler, he said. Acosta said that case is an example of the need for strong enforcement against what he called "bad actors," and in his remarks he said DOL will refer cases to U.S. attorneys for potential criminal prosecutions when warranted. But he strongly defended the department's compliance assistance efforts, as well.

"Violations should not just be the cost of doing business," he said, adding the OSHA inspections increased in FY2017 for the first time in five years. "Enforcement is critically important, but it will not solve every problem," he said. "It makes neither dollars nor sense to play 'gotcha' when we can prevent [harmful mistakes and injuries] in the first place."

Compliance assistance and enforcement must go hand in hand, he said. He then announced the creation of a new Office of Compliance Initiatives at DOL, an office that will focus on and coordinate compliance assistance across all of the department’s agencies. He also announced two new websites, employer.gov and worker.gov, to provide compliance assistance resources to both stakeholder groups.

"We're interested in enforcement against the wrongdoer and helping the [companies] that want to comply," he said. "The Department of Labor has a strong enforcement record. It's the strongest record in years." Working with companies that want to do the right thing and associations such as VPPPA, which likewise consists of companies seeking safety excellence, isn't a free pass – it's the right thing to do, Acosta said.

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