Gregory R. Wagner, M.D.,
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy,
Mine Safety and Health Administration
Sixth Joint US/EU Conference on Occupational Safety and Health
September 22, 2010
Good morning and, on behalf of the US Government; WELCOME to the sixth joint US/EU conference on occupational safety and health! We have great expectations for potential of this multi-lateral meeting to help us all in our common mission—to reduce injury, disease, and death from workplace exposures. I'm honored to give the first (of many) words of welcome. I'm particularly appreciative to be the first—not the last, or I would be worrying about what, if anything, would be left to be said. (For my colleagues who follow, I promise to be brief, and to leave much unsaid.)
Thank you for taking the time to remove yourself from your overcommitted lives in order to gather with colleagues to work together on issues that are critical to the health, safety, and well being of people who work throughout the world.
It's wonderful to look out and see so many old friends…or should I say so many longstanding friends. It's great to be with so many occupational safety and health leaders from labor, industry, and government who are willing to share their passions informed by vast experience, and broad knowledge together to see what good we can achieve together.
Pulling together a conference of this sort is not easy, and I would like us all to recognize some of the people instrumental in its preparation:
- The members of the US/EU steering committee are listed in your program and deserve our thanks
- But I would particularly like us to acknowledge the hard work of our Secretariats: Jackie Gray and her staff, and Antonio Cammarota and his staff.
Traditionally, the first speaker to welcome you might welcome you to the city, to encourage you to enjoy the beautiful early fall weather and take advantage of what a wonderful environment we're privileged to be meeting in. Indeed, this is all true, and I do welcome you to Boston. I hope you find the time while here to walk across to the Public Gardens, to stroll around the Commons, perhaps take a boat ride in the Harbor or walk the Freedom Trail. This is a great place to have a meeting!
But I would like to encourage you to consider for a few minutes now, and then throughout the working meetings, the broader environment or context in which this meeting is happening—the social, economic, and political environmental forces that shape the challenges to worker health and safety, the way OHS is practiced, and the extent to which known worker health protections are being implemented.
Let me point out a few of the forces we all recognize:
First, the economic troubles that have occurred in various forms with various intensities around the world have had, and will continue to have, a profound impact on the structure of work and workplaces:
- In the US and elsewhere there are continuing high levels of unemployment, underemployment, and job insecurity resulting from the economic melt-down.
- The consequences of this job insecurity are many:
- In this climate, workers are less likely to voice concern about health and safety conditions in their workplaces, and more likely to accept hazardous exposures as an unfortunate but necessary evil as they try to provide for themselves and their families.
- There is growth of the so-called "contingent" workforce that benefits too little from government-derived health and safety protections
- Miss-classification of workers in a way that denies them legal benefits flourishes
- Economic stresses also reduce resources for government to enforce legal health and safety protections and to support the research, training, and information dissemination critical for advancing our field.
- The same economic forces that have led to job insecurity have a significant impact on the way health protections are provided by industry.
- For example, perceived or real threats to profitability can result in cutting back on workplace health and safety protections through workplace engineering controls and training. OHS professionals are also feeling job insecurity.
- Maintenance may be deferred, creating risk.
- Some employers have cynically used the cover of the economic crises to ignore their social, ethical, and legal responsibilities to provide safe workplaces, to monitor the work environment for hazards, and to fix them when they are there. They have pursued a sometimes deadly policy of "catch me if you can" waiting for the government inspectors to point out what they already know.
- And, sadly, other employers who are committed to prevention in their own workplaces stand by silently and watch this happen.
- The consequences of this job insecurity are many:
There are other large forces at work:
- Many countries are experiencing an aging workforce
- Workers are holding on to their jobs if they have them, particularly in countries where retirement benefits are not assured
- Some countries have proposed an increase in the legal retirement age to reduce the burden of social retirement benefits.
- As workers age, their health and particularly the development of chronic disease often reflect the accumulated exposures they have had over their working lifetime. The social and medical costs of these conditions are enormous.
- Finally, I will note the continuing and growing effects of internationalization of trade and production with the associated pressures on maintaining an adequate level of workplace health and safety protections throughout the world. This phenomenon, in itself, provides ample justification for our dialog here.
I expect that others will add to this short list of environmental forces at work around us.
Within this context, the organizers have shown wisdom in identifying four areas for discussion, topics where our diverse experience can enable all of us to share useful perspectives and find common ground:
- Chemical Regulation and Control
- OSH Strategic Approaches
- Safety and Health Programs (Risk Assessment)
- Safety and Health Knowledge Management
Despite the external challenges, or perhaps because of them, this meeting has the potential to accomplish much. Obviously, old relationships will be renewed and new ones formed. We'll identify common passions and possibilities that may be pursued later in our work. We'll hear about new ideas, and consider old ideas, newly applied, that can inspire our work.
Is that enough? Perhaps. Weighing against that is the old adage reflecting a common reality: "after all is said and done, more is usually said than done." Balancing that view is what I know of those of us in the room--about our collective passion and commitment to translating knowledge into beneficial action. We need to make sure that the work of this meeting results in products that will assist policy makers and practitioners improve workplace conditions and health and safety protections.
A friend of mine used to tell me, "it isn't real until you write it up." I don't fully buy that—but I do hope we are able to actually take the collective understanding and experience in this room—the wisdom of this crowd—and distill it into meaningful documents for broader dissemination. Others should have the benefit of our time, our work, and our commitment to the creation of true knowledge—information that translates into action.
Like many of us, I am asked to teach periodically. One of my favorite requests I've responded to annually for the last half dozen years has been to address the question: "Why when we know the right thing to do is it so difficult to do it?" I hope that as we conduct our discussions and frame our reports that we consider this question as well. Let's be realistic about the challenges faced by all who are committed to OHS. I look forward to exploring useful programs, proven processes, and effective strategies by which improved health and safety can be. I am optimistic our work here will help us succeed in our commitment to reduce disease, injuries, and fatalities form work and improve worker health, safety, and well-being around the world.