Welcoming Remarks

6th Joint US/EU Conference on Occupational Safety and Health
Boston, Massachusetts
September 22, 2010

Laurent Vogel
Laurent Vogel

Dear Colleagues from the United States and the European Union

First of all, I'd like to thank all the US colleagues for the work carried out in preparing a successful Conference in Boston.

It is the fourth time that I attend a EU-US OSH Conference. I am happy to recognize familiar faces, among them our friends from the US trade union movement. I am happy, curious and excited to meet the new leaders of OSHA.

I have learned a lot from the articles and books of David Michaels. His book "Doubt is their product" is an inspiring source for our activities in the implementation of REACH. It helps us to avoid any naive or positivist approach of scientific evidences and to be vigilant about the need of a public expertise free and an independent workers perspective.

I was also an assiduous reader of Jordan Barab's website where I became familiar with those strange acronyms like BBS or VPP – expansive and useless by products of multinational corporate investment.

During this Conference, we'll discuss a lot about strategy, setting goals, adopting a systematic approach. It is a complex debate and we know that many indicators can be used and different dimensions should be considered. Beyond those technicalities, I am deeply convinced that there is a simple basic need about health and safety at work.

When I arrived here, the first paper I read in the New York Time of Sunday was a long and moving story about two cousins in California. Two young men, both with a skin cancer, both were proposed a drug test. One received the new and efficient drug. The other was put in the control group and received a traditional and poorly efficient chemotherapy with harmful side effects. The journalist published a two page paper presenting the ethical aspects of therapeutic testing. I am afraid that work related cancers – such a common dramatic issue – do not receive such attention.

If you think about, health and safety at work has one thing in common and two major differences with that story.

In common, there is a deep distress due to an unequal treatment and its awful consequences.

The first big difference is that occupational health is not about individuals. We're speaking about hundreds of millions of people exposed to different risks.

The second difference is that in occupational health there is no randomized distribution of risks. The unequal burden is predetermined by social classes, occupational groups, gender and race. It means that at the end of the day health and safety at work is basically about how our society is distributing unfairly and unequally the right to live.

Life expectancy is not the same for the different social classes and occupational groups. Morbidity and handicaps are not equally shared and that process depends very much on the working conditions.

Working as a cleaner, a nurse or a building worker will eventually modify your own biological condition. It will let a track in your body caused by chemical exposures, poor ergonomic design or any other OSH problem.

In my view, any strategy in OSH should address that very basic issue as a priority. Our global aim should be the reduction of social health inequalities.

Only considering such an objective, we can find a strong legitimacy for the intervention of regulatory agencies imposing the rules, enforcing them and sanctioning the companies which don't respect them.

This objective is also the firm basis on which the trade unions are disputing the control of working conditions, are trying to get a voice and an influence in the way production is organized. They are fighting for setting limits to the power traditionally associated with the property rights of employers.

We, European Trade Union delegates, have come to this conference with a mix of good and bad news. We'll explain our experience and our expectations in the first steps of REACH, how we try to get results, to pay the right attention to the workers needs, to accelerate the substitution of the most dangerous substances. REACH is like a baby, full of promises and with a big part of uncertainty, fears and difficulties.

We'll certainly explain also the dark side of the picture: the serious attacks from right wing politicians and employers organizations against the substance of the EU OSH legislation. The trade unions are strongly opposed to the so called "better regulation" agenda. They consider it as a way to promote competition on the basis of bad working conditions. It is a kind of race to bottom. Some of our US friends can remind that last time we left you with the announcement of a coming soon directive on ergonomic principles and a revision improving the legislation on carcinogens at the workplace. Let me just tell you that those directives are still in the pipeline, with many obstacles.

I'll conclude repeating that the exchange of experience with you is a great pleasure and could help us to improve our knowledge. I hope that it will contribute to avoid death, diseases and handicaps and to reduce social inequalities.