Welcome Address

Remarks by
Dr. David Michaels

Assistant Secretary of Labor
United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
And Head of the United States delegation to the
Sixth EU-US Joint Conference on Health and Safety at Work

Opening Session
Boston, Massachusetts
Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Director Silva,
Administrator Cammarota,
Members of the European Commission,
Fellow delegates,
And other distinguished guests:

The United States delegation is pleased and honored to participate in the Sixth EU-US Joint Conference on Health and Safety at Work.

Thank you and congratulations for the good work performed by everyone leading up to today, including the EU and US delegates -- and particularly the OSHA Secretariat and their European Commission counterparts who coordinated this great conference.

My friends: We are eager to exchange ideas with the distinguished EU delegation and to work together closely to achieve vital results. I mean vital literally, because while we discuss issues within the walls of these conference rooms, out there... in the working world… lives are at stake, and we must never lose sight of the responsibility we have to give a voice to every working man and woman.

Over the last year, the families of workers who were killed on the job have come to me, pleading for changes in regulations and practices that will prevent other workers from dying. They beg us to take action so that others will be spared their grief and loss.

I am thinking of the wife and two children left without their father, Eleazar Torres-Gomez, a 46-year-old worker who was roasted alive at a Cintas laundry plant in Oklahoma after he fell onto an unguarded conveyor and was dragged into a 300-degree industrial dryer. He was already dead from burns when another worker found him 20 minutes later.

And I am thinking of Jeff Davis, who was working in an oil refinery in Delaware when a 415,000-gallon tank of sulfuric acid exploded. His body was never recovered -- because this 50-year-old man literally dissolved in the acid resulting from a welding spark that ignited vapors in the storage tank. Jeff's wife, Mary, and her five children were left without a husband and father. Eight of Jeff's co-workers were also injured in this explosion.

Indeed, In the last few months here in the United States, we have know much loss and grief: Seven workers were killed in a refinery fire in Anacortes, Washington; 29 coal miners perished in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia; 11 more were lost in the Deepwater Horizon explosion off the coast of Louisiana; and when the Kleen Energy power plant construction site in Connecticut blew up, six more workers were killed.

These catastrophic events are powerful reminders of the risks faced by workers every day -- here, in Europe, and around the world.

The US delegation approaches this joint conference with humility and respect for our EU friends. We concede that we do not have all the answers to effectively protect workers every day and everywhere; if we did, more than 4,000 workers would not have died last year in the United States, and thousands of other workers would not have been injured on the job.

We recognize that Europe and the United States have different perspectives and strengths, and that this conference presents an opportunity for all of us to learn and share. Therefore, we look forward eagerly to the inventive solutions that should come from our discussions.

Our world is shrinking, and the problems of one nation are rarely isolated anymore. Wretched conditions in a distant land not only stir our consciences but reverberate through our linked economies. Our trade and our societies are all put in peril when we allow unscrupulous employers to mistreat workers and when they seek an unfair competitive advantage over responsible employers.

However, if the US and the EU can present a united front and oppose unfair working conditions among our nations, our actions will not only benefit our workers and employers, but also give hope and courage to others around the world who seek workplace reform.

Effective, lasting reform requires patience, deliberation, expertise and vision. At this, our sixth joint conference, we do not expect to resolve all the complex issues facing our workers and employers on both sides of the Atlantic; but we can build on the accomplishments of our predecessors and lay the groundwork for future delegates.

It gives me great pride to announce that this year's delegation from the United States includes the largest representation of organized labor since we began our joint conferences 13 years ago. This reflects the current US Administration's support for workers' rights and our desire to give workers a stronger voice in their workplace safety and health.

The United States and Europe face a common challenge of helping hard-to-reach immigrant workers who struggle with literacy and language in their adopted lands. The evidence is clear that immigrant workers are less likely to know their rights, receive proper training and protections, more likely to be exploited by bad employers, less likely to speak up when exposed to hazards at work, and, as a result, more likely than other workers to be hurt or killed on the job.

In response to this problem, earlier this year U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis convened a National Action Summit For Latino Worker Health and Safety. Held in Houston, Texas, this summit brought together nearly a thousand workers, employers, labor leaders, representatives from community- and faith-based organizations, consulates and government.

Together, we gathered for two days to seek new and effective ways to improve workers' knowledge of their workplace rights and their ability to exercise those rights. We explored new partnerships and collaborations to reach immigrant workers, and we showcased effective education materials and programs that employers, community organizations and others can use to help save workers' lives.

Following this summit, I issued a reminder to employers in the United States that they are required to present information about workers' rights, safety and health training materials, information and instructions in a language that their workers can understand. I also issued a directive to OSHA inspectors to check during site visits to be sure that employers comply.

This action reflects our belief that that informed workers who ask for and receive proper safety and health training are better positioned to work with their employers to address workplace hazards and reduce both the incidence and the costs of illnesses and injuries on the job.

Along these lines, we are working in the United States to make fundamental changes in the way employers and workers cooperate to secure safe workplaces. Earlier this year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched rulemaking that would require employers in America to implement an effective Injury and Illness Prevention Program that would be tailored to hazards in their workplaces.

Instead of waiting for a government inspection or a workplace tragedy to address workplace hazards, employers would be required to develop an organized, comprehensive, effective plan to find the safety and health hazards in their facilities that might injure or kill workers -- and then fix those hazards.

In recent weeks we have held several meetings across the United States to invite public discussion on this significant potential change in American workplaces. Indeed, the subject of Injury and Illness Prevention Programs -- or Safety and Health Management Systems -- is one of our conference topics here in Boston.

On the subject of chemical hazards in our workplaces, I am pleased to note that we are taking positive steps: The United States is moving ahead on revising the Hazard Communication Standard to make it consistent with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals. I am aware that the European Union is also in the process of updating its regulations to align with the third revision of the GHS. We look forward to our continued collaboration in this important area.

There is a larger chemical safety issue that we must confront. Thousands of new and potentially hazardous chemicals have been created in the last half-century, and many of our existing Permissible Exposure Limits are decades out of date. Updating these limits and establishing individual standards for individual chemicals demands a tremendous amount of resources and takes years to establish, even as new chemicals posing unknown hazards continue to appear in workplaces.

This piecemeal approach to addressing chemical safety is no longer workable in the United States or in the EU. Together, we must find broader, more sweeping solutions. Here in America, we opened a forum to ask workers, employers, the scientific community and others for new, innovative ideas -- and we need perspectives from the EU as well.

These open forums I have mentioned -- in the form of public meetings, live online discussions, and the availability of the public to comment on proposed regulations via the Internet -- are greatly encouraged in President Obama's Administration. This "government transparency" encourages democratic participation by all who have an interest and a perspective to share.

Also a strong characteristic of this Administration is the Department of Labor's focus on workers' rights. Under the direction of Secretary Solis, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the United States has realigned its priorities to return to the original intend of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970: Our principal focus is on creating standards based on science, and on enforcing those standards. Here the EU and the US find common ground: In both the EU and the U.S. Department of Labor's strategic plans for improving worker health and safety, we see a strong focus on prevention.

We also recognize the need to offer assistance to employers -- especially owners of small businesses -- to help them comply with our labor laws. There are great opportunities in this area to innovate with new services and products, such as free consultation services and online learning tools -- and we welcome more discussions on this important topic because, in the end, we all want our businesses to thrive while they protect their workers.

But here in Boston, our time together is limited and so are our topics of discussion. Weeks ago, we endorsed our conference topics, subtopics and focus questions and shared a US and EU approach to each respective conference topic.

To review:

1. Safety and Health Knowledge Management. Knowledge about how to prevent worker injuries and illnesses -- how to recognize and address hazards -- is useless unless we can place this information in the hands of workers and employers. The challenge before us is: How do we raise awareness of existing solutions and how do we build a preventative culture in our workplaces? Also, how do we preserve safety and health expertise in workplaces and ensure that knowledge is passed from generation to generation?

2. The role of indicators in developing and assessing OSH strategies. Systematic management can and should be applied to address risk factors and collect pertinent and accurate information to track progress in worker health and safety -- but which factors should be used, and what measurements will yield a useful picture? How can we ensure that recordkeeping and reporting systems provide data that is appropriate and accurate? We need to agree on and develop Key Performance Indicators that will help us monitor trends and focus on preventing workplace tragedies.

3. Worker Protection Systems, or Safety and Health Management Systems. Labor organizations and management generally support the idea of using business processes to improve safety and health performance; but management often expresses concerns about the costs and time commitment while labor groups sometimes react negatively to management approaches to implementing and maintaining these systems. We will compare US and EU systems, how these can be improved, and what can be done to motivate more widespread use of these systems to protect workers.

4. Addressing Chemical Exposures on the Job. For the third time in our joint conferences, we are recognizing the critical issues related to the use of chemicals in the workplace. In previous meetings, we have discussed risk management for individual chemicals in workplaces. At this conference, one workgroup will consider how to address the hazards of mixtures of chemicals -- including hazard assessment, exposure limits, appropriate controls, and the impact on preparing labels and safety data sheets. In addition, the participants will explore the use of respiratory protection for chemicals, as well as examine effective worker training practices for chemical safety and health.

The US Delegation joins our EU counterpart in recognizing that our talks and our search for productive results have a human rights dimension. So it is most fitting that we should meet and find inspiration over the next two days here in the city of Boston.

If this is your first visit to Boston, you will be pleasantly surprised to discover how the streets and architecture in much of this city have led many people to call Boston "the most European city in the United States."

Boston is also called "the cradle of liberty" because the American Revolution began here, and visitors are invited to follow a well-marked "Freedom Trail" that highlights historic landmarks along the colonial path to liberty. Here at our conference, may we be equally inspired to blaze our own "freedom trail" that can liberate workers from preventable injuries and illnesses.

We have a busy agenda and limited time to pursue tangible outcomes, but we also have a great advantage: A room filled with experience and wisdom.

Therefore, let today mark a renewed beginning for a deepened and broadened cooperation. As we work together, let us keep foremost in our minds these two ideals:

  • No employer should be allowed to put profit ahead of worker safety.
  • No human being should be at risk of dying in order to earn a living.

Thank you.