Opening Plenary Remarks From The U.S. Labor Delegation

Third US/EU Joint Conference on Occupational Health and Safety
October 15, 2003 – Lemnos, Greece


William Kojola
Department of Occupational Safety and Health

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, colleagues, brothers and sisters. On behalf of the U.S. labor delegation, I want to express our pleasure in joining all of you at this third US/EU joint conference on occupational safety and health. I want to especially greet and thank our Greek hosts for the wonderful arrangements for our meeting here on the beautiful island of Lemnos.

The labor delegates from the United States welcome the opportunity to meet with European trade unionists, employers and government representatives to jointly discuss improving the health and safety conditions for workers in the European Union and the United States. Trade unionists from the United States have participated in the previous two US/EU conferences and we recognize the value and importance of the tripartite approach – government, employers and unions working together on the goal of protecting workers from hazards in our workplaces. There is strength in the tripartite approach for addressing hazards and we are looking forward over the next three days to working with you to advance this objective.

During the course of our discussions and any future collaborative efforts between us, we must stay focused on the fundamental and foremost reason why we are here in Lemnos – to improve health and safety for working people. This is our real mission. While we have made progress, much remains to be done to achieving the highest level of protection for workers.

We have much in common between the United States and Europe that binds us together. We do also have differences as well – different systems and variations in methods that have been used, or are being contemplated for adoption, to protect workers from hazards on the job.

We can learn from each other. This meeting will offer an opportunity to identify our various approaches toward achieving health and safety in several important areas of concern. Hopefully, our discussions will lead toward cooperative efforts in establishing ongoing dialogue and exchange of information among us that can assist all of us in achieving the highest level of protection for workers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. This is the challenge before us at this conference.

As we begin our work and deliberations on the workgroup subjects for this meeting, we believe it is useful for us to articulate some fundamental views the U. S. labor delegation holds that drive our perspectives on the topics selected for discussion at this conference. On certain issues, our views will differ from that of government and employer representatives from the United States.

Exposure to hazardous levels of chemicals is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of workers. While some progress has been achieved in protecting workers from illnesses associated with chemical exposures, we have largely failed to reduce our occupational exposure limits and advance our levels of protection in the United States. Many of our existing limits are 30 to 50 years old and do not reflect new scientific understanding of the adverse health consequences that can occur to workers at those exposure levels. In the US, setting new exposure limits proceeds one chemical at a time and can take as long as 10 years to complete. As a result, workers remain exposed to levels of toxic chemicals that place them at increased risk of developing illness or death. We need to find a new approach to updating our occupational exposure limits on an expedited basis. Our responsibility to protect workers demands this and we look forward to the discussions with our European colleagues on this critical concern for all of us.

Cooperative programs and partnerships represent one approach that offers some potential to advance the cause of worker protection. In our view however, initiatives such as these cannot be fully effective when worker participation is superficial at best or non-existent at worst. Employees and their representatives must be fully engaged at all stages and in all aspects in these efforts with employers and governments under the framework of a tripartite structure. Nevertheless, we must also remember that cooperative programs are voluntary in nature. Such voluntary efforts, while offering the potential to reduce workplace hazards, are not substitutes for mandatory safety and health standards and vigorous enforcement of those regulations.

The means by which we measure our progress, or lack of it, in protecting workers from hazards that cause injury, illness, and death is an important matter for dialogue between the United States and Europe. When used properly, performance measures can assist all of us in assessing whether we're being effective or not in our efforts to protect workers. We believe that greater emphasis needs to be placed on those measures that are preventive in nature and not focus exclusively on lagging indicators. We also caution that goals set for performance measure improvements must not be achieved falsely by policies and procedures that discourage workers from reporting injuries or illnesses.

Organizational changes in the workplace, and their impact on the health and safety of workers, is an emerging issue of critical importance. We are pleased that this topic has been selected for discussion. The impacts of those organizational changes on stress, working hours, and work-family balance for example, are now correctly being viewed as potential hazards to which workers may be exposed. We have a responsibility to identify hazards that may be associated with the manner in which work has been organized and to implement intervention measures that protect workers. We are excited to begin this dialogue with our European participants and hope that our future collaborations and information sharing on this matter will be fruitful.

Those of us in the U.S. labor delegation look forward to this week in Lemnos. The relationships we build among each other while we are here will help to foster our continued work together. We are convinced that the dialogue between the United States and the European Union is an essential step towards moving our worker protections collectively to the highest level.

Thank you.