Opening Session

US Labor
Michael Wright, United Steelworkers

I've been asked to give the opening statement for U.S. Labor, and I am honored to do so. I'd like to begin by thank our hosts in the European Union for all the hard work of finding a venue, organizing the sessions, doing all the work of preparation. I'd also like to thank US OSHA. Although the meeting was not in the USA this year, OSHA did a terrific job lining up the US delegates and keeping us on course. I remember lots of frantic emails from Jackie DeMesme-Gray asking us to do this and comment on that – always diplomatically (Jackie is the most diplomatic person I know) but always forcefully. You know, Jackie, you can be a real pain – and thank you for it and please keep it up, because it's exactly what we need.

I'd like to thank some of the hardest workers at these conferences – the interpreters. We're all speaking English, but with very different pronunciations, and that makes interpretation a very tough job. I'd like to thank our brothers and sisters in European labor for your continued solidarity and for the chance to learn from each other in yesterday's meetings.

And of course I'd like to thank our social partners in industry for your participation. We often have opposing views and I'm sure we will have some disagreements, maybe even some heated ones, during the next three days. I think that's as it should be, because real creativity requires a little conflict, and if we all approach these issues in the spirit of mutual respect and common purpose, we can achieve a result better than what any of the parties could have achieved individually.

A week or two ago, when I reacquainted myself with the four topics, I realized that I had forgotten which were proposed by the EU and which by the USA. And it wasn't at all obvious, since all of them are critically important on both sides of the Atlantic.

All of them raise issues that go far beyond the stated title. Nanotechnology is a rapidly emerging technology that holds great promise for human betterment but also embodies unknown and potentially lethal risks to workers and perhaps even consumers. In the United States we can't get out a standard for silica, a single agent, whose hazards are well known, the product of very ancient technologies. How can we hope to deal with carbon nanotubes, colloidal nanosilver, quantum dots…and the list is rapidly growing. We'd better figure it out, since nano isn't going to be the last promising and problematic new technology. Synthetic biology is probably up next, and it's even more revolutionary than nano. Think of all the hazards of nano and add self-replication.

Of course the issue of emerging technologies is closely linked to the work of the chemicals group on setting appropriate occupational exposure limits – and doing it quickly, efficiently, accurately, fairly, correctly. New chemical products are coming at us a lot faster than associated OELs, as is new information about old chemicals through REACH and potentially through equivalent legislation in the USA.

Occupational safety and health in the green economy is also critical. We are learning that some of the most dangerous jobs are so-called green jobs – with issues like falls from wind-turbine towers and silica exposure in hydraulic fracturing in the recovery of natural gas. There's a macabre irony in a job that helps save humanity but kills human beings. A job isn't green when it turns blood-red. We have a real opportunity to fix that – to design safety into jobs at the outset in a way that is applicable to all jobs, green or not.

And finally, the prevention of catastrophic accidents. Of course that issue is important in its own right, but we are increasingly learning that the tools applicable to this task – root cause investigation, hazard identification, risk control, rigorous job assessment, management of change, the selection of inherently safer processes, a safety case approach – those tools are relevant to preventing any accident or occupational disease. After all, any fatal accident, any life-altering one, is catastrophic to the worker it victimizes and to his or her family.

One final point. This conference is important even beyond the individual topics. Today there's a worldwide attack on the very notion of worker protection, of regulation, of any kind of social contract. There's a lot of rhetoric that too much regulation is to blame for our economic woes, that workers and consumers are overprotected, that we have to destroy the “culture of safety,” in the words of the British Prime Minister. A conference like this is an important statement to the contrary – a statement that people deserve protection, that health and safety help build the economy, that economic injustice is not caused by its victims.

More than that, it's part of what we must do to move forward, not just on our respective sides of the North Atlantic, but worldwide. Today there are great protests against globalization, or more precisely against the impact of the globalized economy on workers and communities. A lot of us on the trade union side have breathed our share of tear gas in those protests. But my own view is that the problem isn't too much globalization – it's too little. We've globalized finance; we've globalized capital; we've globalized production; we've globalized the protection of intellectual property; we've even globalized fast-food restaurants. But we haven't globalized worker rights; we haven't globalized environmental protection; we certainly haven't globalized occupational safety and health. A worker in China, making the iPhones, Droids and Blackberries that all of carry; a miner in Kazakhstan whose metallurgical coal will be used in a steel plant in Ukraine to produce steel for the European market; a textile worker in Bangladesh making clothes for stores 12 thousand miles away in the United States – all of them are participating in the global economy. But when they are killed in an industrial accident or from industrial disease, suddenly the global economy disappears and it becomes a purely local concern, of interest only in that country and that enterprise. That has to change. We are some of the people who have to change it. And any conference like this one that focuses our attention on problems beyond our own borders can make a contribution.

So enjoy the workshops; all of the subjects are important in their own right, but let's occasionally lift our eyes to their wider implications, their wider opportunities. We in the US labor delegation are very much looking forward to the next three days.