Welcome Address 

4th US-EU Joint Conference on Occupational Safety and Health
Orlando, Florida - September 14, 2005

Steven F. Witt

Steven F. Witt

Good afternoon. And welcome to the 4th US-EU Joint Conference on Occupational Safety and Health. For those of you who have traveled from Europe, welcome to the U.S., to Florida, and to the wonderful city of Orlando. I hope you will find the time to enjoy the hospitality and entertainment that this city is famous for while you are here.

For those who have come from across the U.S., thank you for being here, especially during this trying time. There are a great many of you here today who have been working tirelessly to help those in need who are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Thank you - sincerely - thank you for your efforts.

This meeting, and the mission of this conference, is also extremely critical to safety and health. As the host of this conference, let me say thank you, everyone, for being here.

In particular, I would like to thank Bernhard Jansen, the EU Steering Committee and the US Steering Committee, as well as Frank White and Alan McMillan, the industry co-chairs; Peg Semanario, the labor chair; and John Howard and David Dye, the government co-chairs.

You, the 115 people here today, each represent thousands of workers, thousands of lives, thousands of futures…and thousands of families. We have the opportunity, over the next couple days, to give a voice to those we represent, to those we are charged with protecting. But perhaps, more importantly, we have the opportunity to listen and learn from our colleagues and counterparts.

It is so rare that so many of us, from both sides of the Atlantic, have the opportunity to come together to discuss the issues that are important to all of us. In fact, this is only the fourth such meeting.

In Luxembourg, San Francisco and Lemnos, we made good progress on a range of issues, from worker rights and compliance assistance, to rulemaking, enforcement and small and medium enterprises.

We have come a long way since the 1995 New Transatlantic Agenda challenged us to increase cooperation between the United States and the European Union. My great hope is that this week, we will utilize this technical venue to continue to progress by exploring what works and identifying tangible results.

We have much in common. Across the United States and Europe, our economies are evolving in similar ways and we are both facing similar workforce challenges that are changing the way we all do business, including the prevalence of contracting, migrant workers and technological innovation.

We are facing similar issues involving occupational safety and health as well. We have similar numbers of injuries and fatalities, with the number of deaths hovering above 5,000 for both communities. And we are both seeing positive results from our efforts to reduce injuries, illnesses and fatalities. Here in the U.S., in the last three years we've seen the lowest number of on-the-job fatalities since we started keeping records.

While we both face many of the same hazards and many of the same challenges, we also have some differences as well. This meeting is about finding the commonalities - the good practices - but it is also about identifying distinctions in the ways we have approached occupational safety and health.

We are all here to find out what is and is not working so that we can learn from one another and collectively reduce the number of injuries, illnesses and fatalities throughout Europe and the U.S. It is this kind of open dialogue that spurs progress and results. It is this kind of progress that we have all come to be a part of this week.

The challenge is real; the opportunity is vast; the mission is noble and good. We are seeking continuous improvement in workplace safety and health. Therefore our ultimate goal can be none other than zero injuries, zero illnesses, zero fatalities.

Some say that this is impossible. Certainly, it will not be easy. And it will not come tomorrow. I normally wouldn't do this, but being here in Orlando, the home of Disney World, I'm going to invoke Walt Disney, who said: " It's kind of fun to do the impossible."

I plan on having lots of fun as we work to achieve the "impossible." Every step we take is one closer to 5,000, to 4,000, to 3,000 to 1. Every figure - every statistic - is not just a number, it's someone's life story.

It's the four workers in Chicago who were pulled from a trench just before the walls collapsed. And the demolition workers who were removed from the second story of a shaky building because the support beams didn't look sturdy. The next day, the entire structure collapsed on its own. Thankfully, the workers had been removed from the structure and were therefore okay.

It's the construction worker who was helping to repair a football stadium in Wisconsin who slipped off of a girder 6 stories above the ground. Thankfully, he was wearing the fall protection safety equipment he needed. After a medical check-up, he was back at work the same day and safe at home with his family that night.

That is what we're all about. People fall. And we help catch them. At hundreds of companies just like these, this means saving a life and keeping a family whole.

I am sure there are many similar instances of workers narrowly escaping injury in your countries as well. These stories are fact, not fiction. They represent people's lives, not just statistics. And they are proof positive of the incredible impact that we can have on the lives of the people we serve.

We have all been reminded recently of the precious value of life. We have all been witness to the awesome power of nature. Last month's floods in central and southern Europe killed dozens of people and caused billions of Euros in damage, including the destruction of vital farmlands in some countries.

Three weeks ago, along the Gulf Coast of the U.S. , we were struck by the worst natural disaster in the history of our country. I know this is not on our Agenda, but it is too immediate, too visceral and too real not to talk about a little.

Today, we are still so close to the catastrophe, that it is hard to think that the name "Katrina" will ever remind us of anything other than the horror that none of us thought possible - not here, not in America.

We have been humbled, but we also have hope. My hope is that someday, the heroism that has been exhibited in the days following the tragedy will be remembered even more than the traumatic pictures and tearful tales.

My hope is that someday "Katrina" will remind us of the selfless sacrifices made by so many at the Coast Guard, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the National Guard, and among the everyday heroes - those who placed themselves directly in harm's way so that they could part the waters and lead the way to safety.

Shortly after the storm hit and to this day, OSHA is on the ground and in the thick of it. It's not our typical day's work, but it's certainly not the first time we've been here. When the towers fell on 9/11, we answered the call. When hurricanes devastated neighborhoods not too far away from us here in Florida last year, we were there. And in both cases, not a single worker was killed during the recovery and reconstruction process, even amidst the brambles and twisted metal. This is our goal for the Gulf Coast as well.

Most of OSHA's work is conducted under fairly typical working conditions. We are at construction sites, on factory floors, alongside ditches, on highways and in retail stores - 7 million worksites in all. But we are also there when the ditches are overflowing with flood waters, when the highways are blocked by splintered debris, when factories are quiet, when the stores are empty, and when the construction site is a devastated coastline spread across three states - and a disaster zone the size of Great Britain .

There are thousands of relief workers, construction crews and average citizens across the Gulf Coast at this very hour, who are trying to clean up and rebuild their communities. One-by-one, block by block, door-to-door, they seek to stop the suffering and to rebuild once again.

Under the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex, OSHA has been designated as the lead agency for the health and safety of workers supporting the Hurricane Katrina relief and reconstruction effort. This is the first time that the Annex has been initiated as part of the federal government's National Response Plan. It went into effect when the Department of Homeland Security declared Katrina to be an Incident of National Significance.

The Annex provides guidelines for implementing a worker safety and health program during Incidents of National Significance. The protocol includes descriptions of the actions needed to ensure that threats to responder safety and health are anticipated, recognized, evaluated and controlled consistently so that responders are properly protected during incident management operations.

Relief and recovery can be dangerous work; but we're there to make it less so. We also have initiated OSHA's National Emergency Management Plan to coordinate our efforts internally . This focus will enable us to provide the most effective and efficient support possible.

This guidance is at work today. In Louisiana , an OSHA team intervened when they saw a tree trimmer working within one foot of an 18,000 volt power transmission line. The spotted him just in time. He was hoisted away from the danger.

In Alabama , a 10 year-old boy was helping his father's construction company to patch a slick roof. Neither the boy, nor the four construction workers with him had fall protection. And they had not been trained on the hazards of falls. The OSHA team provided technical assistance on fall protections, convinced the father to keep his boy off of the roof and identified the proper safety harnesses, which were then used.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a city whose population has doubled in size because of the displaced residents and rescue workers, there's five times the normal traffic load on the freeways. To complicate the matter, many of the crews working on or near the roads haven't been wearing the proper high visibility vests, or using road signs and safety cones.

In these situations and hundreds of others, we have provided information, guidance and even safety materials. Because that is what we do. That is what all of us in this room do. Whether we are facing natural disasters or everyday hazards, our jobs - and our lives - are dedicated to saving the lives of those around us. That's why we're all here.

And that's why we are gathered here in Orlando for the fourth US-EU meeting. To identify hazards; to develop pragmatic solutions; to prevent injuries and illnesses. And above all else - to save lives.

Specifically, we are here to address five issues:

  • Global management of chemicals;
  • Advancing good practices in health and safety at the corporate level;
  • The safety and health of immigrant or migrant workers;
  • Contractor safety; and
  • The VPP Pilot project in Ireland.

I'm not going to get into the details of these five areas. That is what the subgroups are designed for. But I want to provide an overview so that we can all gain a better understanding of the wide-ranging impact that we can make by making progress in these areas.

The work group on global management of chemicals will continue to explore new approaches for dealing with safety and health issues related to chemical exposures. A pilot project has been conducted since our last meeting in Lemnos , and the group will be discussing the results and determining what lessons have been learned. Implementation of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, as well as control banding, are key areas that will be addressed. The group will be looking for additional opportunities to continue working together on these critical occupational safety and health concerns.

The subgroup on Advancing Good Practices in Health and Safety at the Corporate Level is addressing a broad subject that will require them to focus on key issues and be realistic about deliverables and outcomes. Toward this goal, they will concentrate on i dentifying critical strategic and cultural elements needed to create corporate good practices, as well as important operational elements for identifying, implementing and sustaining good practices at all levels. They will examine various methods for applying good practices and models for achieving success. The roles of government and social partners will be looked at as well.

The subgroup on immigrant and migrant workers will look at statistics and data collection, good practices in outreach, training and advocacy; as well as the roles of government, community organizations, labor groups and employers. Advances in the availability of detailed statistical information will be addressed. Specific alliance and partnership programs will be discussed. And an overview of outreach tools, training opportunities and personnel specializing in immigrant and migrant issues will be covered.

Contractor safety is the fourth area of interest. Within many industries, contracting work to third parties is quite prevalent. Such situations require collaboration in order to ensure safety and health concerns are addressed. The subgroup on contractor safety will attempt to describe the challenges in terms of the kinds of industries, types of work and degrees of impact that safety and health problems have on this group. The group also will examine training and instruction, management systems, tools for contractor safety and measurements of relevant health and safety indicators.

The final subgroup will address an issue that is a tangible result from our conference at Lemnos - bilateral cooperation for the OSHA - Ireland VPP Pilot Project. There has been great progress in this area since Lemnos , including numerous meetings between representatives from Ireland , Northern Ireland and the U.S. and an agreement between the parties signed in June of 2004. Prescreening audits were conducted last December. Auditor training was conducted in April. And last month, it was my distinct honor to announce the first VPP Ireland site at the Voluntary Protection Programs - Participant Association Annual Meeting in Texas . I'm looking forward to the discussion about the pilot project, and in particular, an examination of the process involved in reaching this momentous occasion, the challenges that were faced, the barriers that were overcome and the successes of the pilot. The applicability of this and other partnership models will be addressed as well.

These are the five primary issue areas. Tackling them is the goal for the rest of the week.

We have a couple of very good days ahead of us. There are many challenging issues in front of us. There's a lot of work to be done and not that many hours to complete the task at hand. But I am confident that we can achieve success.

In my mind, there isn't a more fitting place to be than Orlando as we set out to create that which has only been dreamed of before - a partnership for safety that is without border and whose potential is unlimited, unfettered and grand.

Just 30 years ago, Orlando was empty land and orange groves - not much else. And then came a vision of what this city could be - a destination unlike any other. A place where the world could come together to fulfill the dreams of those who are young or at least young at heart. From a simple vision, came a brilliant future. From the grove, came gravitas.

This is only the fourth meeting of the Joint US-EU Conference. Already, we have seen great progress on a number of fronts. And I am excited about the possibilities that lay before us. This meeting - and these days - build on the bold vision laid out in Luxembourg, framed up in San Francisco and first realized in Lemnos. I'm excited to see what's next. I hope we will continue to advance this vision for a better, safer future for every worker in the 26 countries, and 2 communities, that we serve.

Good luck. Great discussions. Have a wonderful day.

Thank you very much.