4th EU-US Joint Conference
Occupational Health and Safety

14 -- 16 September 2005
Orlando, Florida, USA

John Howard
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
United States Department of Health and Human Services

John Howard

Keynote Address

Louis Pasteur once said "Science knows no country because it is light that illuminates the world." Like science, emerging infectious diseases, like AIDS, SARS and the influenza virus, know no country either. There are no security barriers to prevent their migration across international borders or around the world's time zones--their movement is as free as that of our interconnected delivery system of goods, services, and workers in a globally-integrated economy. And, because each country's social and economic activities are becoming more and more interconnected, the need for us to cooperate and collaborate on a global level has never been greater.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of all my colleagues at the United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, I also welcome you to the 4th joint US-EU conference on occupational safety and health. Together, U.S. and EU have a crucial role to play in building a 21st century global occupational safety and health community.

For me, globalism is an increase in the frequency and duration of linkages between countries leading to similarities in the activities of individuals, the practices of businesses, and the policies of governments. Sustainable globalism is when all of those linkages lead to the betterment of the human condition for all the world's peoples. And, whether measured by knowledge transfer, by the flow of goods and services, by direct or indirect investments across national boundaries, the economies of the both the developing and developed world are becoming more integrated, and, therefore, more susceptible to sudden social, political, security or economic dislocations.

Emerging global biologic agents are not the only hazardous agents which present challenges to our globally integrated future. Human beings themselves can be agents of violence in the workplace, even agents of international terrorism. And chemical agents--whether used in legitimate commercial activities or intentionally as agents of mass disruption or mass destruction--pose similar challenges to an increasingly integrated world. And we are just learning that the practices and policies that we employ to organize work activities and the people who perform work--management systems, labor relations policies, work scheduling, the very nature of the changing employment relationship--can all pose serious occupational health challenges.

I am pleased that we are highlighting four critically important areas at this Conference--global management of chemicals, corporate level health and safety practices, immigrant workforce safety and health, and contractor safety and health. These four issues are very important to workers and their representatives and advocates; to employers and their association representatives; to occupational safety and health professionals; and to the governmental institutions of our respective countries which have either express statutory, or implied leadership, responsibilities to ensure safe workplaces.

Yet, as we consider these four important issues, we must simultaneously take a hard look at our current risk characterization, risk control and risk communication methods--be they mandatory or voluntary--configured as they were in the last century--and ask ourselves: "Are they the ones that will best serve as effective tools to help us achieve our global occupational safety and health goals in a changing 21stcentury world?"

I think that this fundamental question is relevant for our discussion on each of our four Conference issues.

Global Management of Chemicals

We will discuss how best to develop a global system of managing risks associated with the industrial use of chemicals--a globally harmonized system for the classification and labeling of chemicals. The GHS has the potential to bring together risk assessment and risk management in a globally consistent strategy for chemicals, and may provide a context for the use of a newer exposure control tools without the need for technically-intensive risk assessment.

Given the scientific review, administrative and legal challenges associated with current methods of developing adequate throughout for occupational safety and health exposure limits, our discussion of innovative risk assessment and risk management approaches like control banding is appropriate.

This is so because barriers to workplace hazard management in developing nations include lack of expertise, technology, finances and time. And, indeed the same barriers exist in small businesses in developed countries. In fact, even when a current occupational exposure limit does exist for a particular toxic agent, small to medium-sized employers whether they are in developed or developing nations have less resources and expertise to implement an exposure assessment and control plan.

The control banding approach has recently gained momentum through adoption by the International Program on Chemical Safety (IPCS) and the formation of an international workgroup to advance the approach in developing nations.

Several WHO Collaborating Centers on Occupational Health in developing and industrializing nations are beginning the translation and piloting of the ILO Chemical Toolkit, with assistance from the International Occupational Hygiene Association and the UK 's HSE.

Clearly, there are many more non-traditional approaches that can be considered. For instance, the risk assessment paradigm can be reversed from one where the government is required to show after-marketing adverse risks from use of a particular chemical before being allowed to regulating exposure to it, to one in which the manufacturer is required to show the absence of adverse risk effects, or the acceptability of risks associated with the chemical, before the chemical is allowed to be marketed.

The important point is not that any particular alternative to our current risk assessment and risk control paradigm is any more valid than the other. Rather, the point is that it may be time to begin a serious discussion of how to control risks in a 21st century globally-integrated economy recognizing that the methods developed in the last century are not as effective as we would wish.

Advancing Good Practices in Health and Safety at the Corporate Level

Focusing our discussion on corporate level practices in safety and health is also a timely and important topic.

The apparent increase in interest and activity in recent years in health and safety management systems, the scarcity of evaluation research studies in this area, and the consequences of implementing an inappropriate health and safety management system, all underscore the importance of this Conference topic.

While the need for a systematic approach to health and safety management at the corporate level has been promoted nationally and internationally, empirical studies have been few and critical evaluation of health and safety management systems, has been limited.

A host of questions about corporate level safety and health management systems practices exist:

  • What exactly is a health and safety management system and how can it best serve a tool to implement good corporate practices?
  • Will health and safety management systems make a difference in reducing workplace injury and disease levels or are they largely a means of ensuring corporate productivity goals, enhancing equity or discharging corporate social responsibilities?
  • What exactly does the most effective health and safety management system look like?
  • Does the shift towards a more systematic approach to corporate practices signal significant change or merely the adoption of a passing management fad?

All of these questions, and the others listed in your Conference syllabus, are important to discuss the benefits of corporate level safety and health practices remain largely anecdotal or testimonial benefits.

And, the call for integrated health and safety management at the corporate level is not new. In 1931, H.W. Heinrich--his highly influential work"Industrial Accident Prevention: A Scientific Approach,"which documented the prevailing approach to health and safety prevention programs (within a philosophical framework which saw individual employees rather than working conditions as the primary cause of accidents in the workplace)--argued that safety should be managed like any other business function, and drew parallels between the control of safety and control of the quality, cost and quantity of production. Safety, efficiency and productivity were portrayed by Heinrich as interlinked as long ago as 1931.

What is new is the significant literature and practice developing in the field of corporate social responsibility. The UN's Global Compact--a voluntary initiative to promote responsible corporate citizenship, ensuring that business, in partnership with other societal actors, plays its essential part in achieving the United Nations' vision of a more sustainable and equitable global economy--continues to pursue a robust program. The challenge for us is to expand the concept of corporate social responsibility to include the firm's internal work environment as well as its general external environment.

Furthermore, as David Grayson and Adrian Hodges remark in their new book "Corporate Social Opportunity," [i] basing corporate practices primarily on a risk management paradigm--fear of getting hurt--reinforces the negative. Rather, they advocate changing our focus to emphasize programs for corporate social opportunities.

It is with this rich history involving corporate safety and health management systems, and exciting recent developments in corporate social responsibility, that we approach the question of what are optimal corporate level health and safety practices. It is a challenging issue to say the least.

Immigrant Workforce Safety and Health

In the 21st century, America's workforce is going to be a more dynamic structure than it was in the 20th century--and will approach the dynamism of a European workforce. Indeed, the forces of both emigration and immigration will affect every country's workforces in the 21st century. From 2005 to 2050, the more developed regions are projected to have about 2.2 million more immigrants than emigrants a year, and the U.S. is expected to receive about half of these immigrants.[ii]

In the late 20th century, the flow of immigrants in the United States was responsible for increasing the richness of the racial and ethnic diversity of the American workforce. In addition, immigration was and is still responsible for maintaining a positive workforce growth rate in America. New immigrants to the U.S. accounted for 50.3 percent of the growth in the US civilian labor force during a three year period (1999-2001).[iii]In other words, during this period, one out of two net new labor force participants was a foreign immigrant.[iv]

Where do America's immigrants come from? Increasingly, they come from Mexico. Some scholars[v]have noted that there are some ways that the current Mexican immigration differs from previous waves of immigrants who came to America from the 17th through the 20th centuries. At least five factors make Mexican immigration different than other types of immigration and require us to think differently about how best to safeguard Mexican immigrant workers.

First,Mexican immigrants' country of origin is contiguous with the US. This proximity makes it easy for Mexican immigrants to maintain contact with friends and family, which may impair assimilation into the American cultural paradigm.

Second,the dimensions of the current Mexican immigration exceed that of any other category of immigrants. Mexican immigrants to the U.S. constituted 27.6 percent of the total foreign-born US population in 2000 (US Census Bureau).

The next largest groups, Chinese and Filipinos, amounted to only 4.9 and 4.3 percent of the foreign-born population. In 1990, the Latino population of the US represented 9% of the American population, by 2000 it was 12.5%, and by 2050, Latinos will represent one out of every four persons in the US.

Third, illegal Mexican immigration is a recent phenomenon. For instance, the U.S. Border Patrol noted that the 1.6 million apprehensions in the 1960s rose to 8.3 million in the 1970s, to 11.9 million in the 1980s and 14.7 million in the 1990s.

Fourth, Mexican immigrants differ historically from other immigrant groups. No other national immigrant group has asserted or could assert an historical claim to U.S. territory. Parts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and Utah were a part of Mexico until the mid-19th century. Indeed, the native cultural heritage of nearly the entire American Southwest is that of the Mexican culture. Some sociologists and political scientists point out that "Mexican Americans enjoy a sense of being on their own turf that is not shared by any other immigrant group."

Lastly,Mexican immigration shows no sign of abating any time soon. It may become a persistent feature of 21st century America, and, as a result, a persistent aspect of 21st century American occupational safety and health. Until the economic well-being of Mexico approximates that of the US, the major impetus to Mexican immigration will continue to exist.

It is very important that we speak of immigrant safety and health at this Conference because, as the 2004 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries indicates, we still have much work to do. In doing that work, we must be mindful of all of the social, historical, economic and cultural characteristics of Mexican immigration so as to ensure that any transcultural safety paradigm we build is both technically, economically, and culturally effective.

Contractor Safety and Health and the Changing Nature of Employment

Lastly, our topic of contractor safety and health is a very timely one for a changing 21st century workforce. During the last three decades of the 20th century, employers began change their employment practices and these changes are continuing today. An initial indication was the rapid growth in temporary or contingent employment. Between 1980 and 1989, the number of employees working for temporary agencies doubled from 500,000 to 1,000,000. By 1993, Fortune magazine reported that Manpower, Inc., a temporary employment agency, had become the largest employer in the United States .[vi]

In 1996, the Upjohn Institute reported that 78 percent of private sector firms were using flexible staffing arrangements. By the last decade of the 20th century, as Katherine Stone writes in her book"From Widgets to Digits: Employment Regulation for the Changing Workforce,"employers no longer sought to erect internal labor markets, even for their "regular" workforce.[vii]The world of long term stable employment--the 20th century conventional model of a full-time job of indefinite duration at a facility owned or rented by the employer--is coming to an end. Indeed, I think that continued exclusive use of that that mid-20th century model by the occupational safety and health community is fast becoming anachronistic.

The rise of precarious employment--work that has no explicit or implicit promise of longevity--requires us in the safety and health community to face a different employment paradigm in the 21st century than we faced in the 20th. Increasingly, we must expand our vision about who fits into the category of the precariously employed.

Not only are those workers who are expressly contingent to be included, but also those "regular" workers who are hired or retained with a different understanding of employment than their 20th century predecessors.

And these formerly "non-standard" arrangements of employment such as contingent work, precarious employment, work-at-home, together with a breakdown of the traditional employment relationships, may indeed have profound effects on workforce safety and health. We already are finding out that how work is organized may affect cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and psychosocial health. Injury rates may depend on stressors arising from work hours, scheduling and organization. Furthermore, non-standard employment arrangements will challenge our traditional workplace safety paradigm, especially on the governmental level. For these new arrangements, government efforts setting occupational exposure limits, fashioning standards, and developing recommendations and guidance will have to become responsive to the changed nature of employment. We have much to consider when we discuss this topic.


In conclusion, there is no doubt that there are many challenges for us as the future of occupational safety and health unfolds in the 21st century. To chart our course, though, it is crucial that we break down the barriers between the activities of individuals, the practices of businesses, and the policies of governments.

We need to develop partnerships and collaborations to promote the transfer of research findings into practical, cost-effective, evidence-based interventions for each of the many workplace health and safety challenges we face both in developed and in developing countries. And these goals need to be more than achieving zero adverse work-related outcomes, but rather a holism where work is self-defining in the most enhancing way possible, where a worker--whether she is working in a developing or a developed country--can enjoy safe work, where she can enjoy any retirement years with intact health, and where optimal worklife policies and programs are valued and promoted for the sake of achieving full human development.

As the World Trade Center disaster taught us in 2001, and as the epidemic of SARS taught us in 2003, our world is interconnected and our future is also.

Enjoy the Conference, and I wish each of you a safe, a healthful and a secure workplace. Thank you.

[i] David Grayson and Adrian Hodges, Corporate Social Opportunity! Seven Steps to Make Corporate Social Responsibility Work for Your Business, July 2004, pp.390.

[ii] Joel E. Cohen, Human Population Grows Up, Scientific American, September, 2005, p. 54.

[iii] Katherine Loh, Scott Richardson, Foreign-born workers: trends in fatal occupational injuries. 1996-2001, Monthly Labor Review, June 2004, p. 42-53 (42).

[iv] Id., p.42.

[v] Samuel P. Huntington, The Hispanic Challenge, Foreign Policy, March/April 2004, pp. 30-45.

[vi] The Temping of America, Fortune, 1993.

[vii] Katherine Stone, From Widgets to Digits: Employment Regulation for the Changing Workplace, Cambridge