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State safety awards given

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 12, 2012 1:46 PM

N.C. Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry was in Wayne County Wednesday, recognizing local public and private sector industries for workplace safety.

Thanking the business leaders attending the luncheon at Lane Tree Golf Club for their efforts, she noted that during her time in office, since 2001, the rate of workplace injury and illness has averaged 3.9 per 100 full-time employees -- a far cry from the 7.6 and 6.6 rates of her predecessors. And for 2011, she said, the private sector rate was even lower at 3.1 per 100 full-time employees.

"We are at historic lows and now we want to go even lower," Mrs. Berry said. "It gets harder once it gets so low like that."

The key, she said, is continuing to expand and improve the state's efforts at education and training -- not the increased penalties the federal Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration is trying to force states to adopt. North Carolina is one of 27 states allowed to run their own job safety and health programs, provided their standards are at least as effective as the federal ones.

Mrs. Berry, a Republican who is running for re-election this November, explained that if the federal regulators have their way, the average penalty for a serious violation will increase from $900 to $3,500.

"That doesn't make much sense to me, especially in this economy," she said, questioning the sense of forcing a business to pay a higher penalty to the government rather than allowing them to spend that money on making a safer work environment.

That's why, she added, she and other "state plan" states have so far refused to comply.

But that's not the only directive from federal government that the state department is currently monitoring.

Another is the mandate to increase wages up to 129 percent on Oct. 1 for H2A and H2B visa workers -- those legal immigrants who come to the U.S. to work in the agriculture, seafood, forestry and hospitality industries. It's a particular problem, she said, because the increase will actually vary from state to state, with, for example, Tennessee able to pay $4 less than North Carolina for forestry workers and Maryland able to pay $2 less for seafood workers.

A third issue is the rules regarding child labor on farms. Previously, Mrs. Berry explained, North Carolina farms were exempt from most child labor laws. Fortunately, she said, that directive may be bogged down with the more than 10,000 negative responses and challenges to the regulation the U.S. Department of Labor is currently sorting through.

Mrs. Berry also reminded managers that the state General Assembly approved legislation in the last session requiring all employers to participate in the federal E-Verify program to verify the eligibility of all newly hired employees, beginning with those with 500 or more workers in October, those with 100 to 499 workers in January 2013, and those with 25 to 99 workers in July 2013.

Most important, though, she said she wanted to remind those present that there's nothing wrong with making money.

"I love that word, 'profits,'" Mrs. Berry said. "Without them you're not a business. You cannot survive. You cannot benefit the community you live in. You cannot provide jobs.

"You cannot love the employee and demonize the employer."