EU-US Conference on Health and Safety at Work
San Francisco, 15-17 November 2000
EU Keynote Address
John B. Richardson
Deputy Head
Delegation of the European Commission to the United States
Washington, D.C.

EU-US Conference on Health and Safety at Work.
San Francisco, 15-17 November 2000

EU Keynote Address

1.Welcome and Acknowledgments

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I want to begin by thanking Mr. Jeffress and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for having organised this Second Joint EU-US Conference on Health and Safety at Work. Charles, on behalf of the European Commission, I would like to express our appreciation to you and your staff for such a fine job in organizing this conference. In this regard, I would like to single out for special thanks Jacquelyn DeMesme Gray and her team.

Our first joint conference, which took place in Luxembourg in 1998, was a great success, and a real breakthrough in our co-operation.

Some 130 participants representing Governments, Employers, Workers and Institutes from both sides of the Atlantic attended that conference. The debates in Luxembourg were extremely fruitful, with a high level of technical quality and a very strong desire by everybody to learn and to share experiences.

The Luxembourg conference has set in motion an important transatlantic partnership. Over the past two years, our experts have co-operated in the technical exchange of information. As a result, we have all increased our understanding not only of the problems faced, but also of the solutions proposed by our colleagues and partners on the other side.

As part of the preparation for this conference, the exchange of ideas and information has accelerated between our respective teams. The implementation of the New Transatlantic Agenda is bearing considerable fruit in the field of Health and Safety at Work.

The aim of the New Transatlantic Agenda is to enable both sides to join forces to deal with a very wide range of international political, economic and social issues, including labour standards.

Within this framework, an extensive Joint EU/US Action Plan has been developed through which it is foreseen that improved mechanisms for the timely exchange of information on safety and health at work will be established.

As part of today's programme, we will have the opportunity to see a good example of this co-operation, through the presentation of the joint web page. The goal is to promote sharing of information on current safety and health topics of common interest; and, in our opinion, it is powerful proof of the benefits from our co-operation for experts, professionals and all interested people in this field.

The other important feature of the conference will be our Working Group discussions. In the course of the conference, our four Working Groups will concentrate on the issues that are among the most critical we deal with in our every day work environments on both sides of the Atlantic: ergonomics, health and safety management systems, health and safety in small and medium size enterprises, and workers rights and participation. I know that ergonomics is particularly in the news here, as a result of OSHA's bold new rules, but I think all the groups will be of great interest.

2. The European Perspective

It may be important for those attending the conference from the United States to understand the European approach to these matters. You have already heard from the European Union representatives of government, industry and workers earlier this morning. I would like to add a few comments on the nature of the European model.

Philosophically speaking, the European approach to these health and safety issues rests on the fundamental concept of a social market economy. We believe that the improvement of the work environment goes hand in hand with the development of a market economy. Based on these twin principles, the European Commission's aim is to achieve a modernised, effective and efficient health and safety regime for Europe, which improves our accident and ill-health record and is positive for employability and business.

In order to accomplish this, we believe very deeply in the necessity to develop a tripartite consensus of governments, workers and employers on these issues which -- after all -- are of mutual concern. Although interests differ in some ways, the basic interest of achieving a sustainable, high performance economy that creates opportunities for the well-being of our citizens is shared. With these principles in mind, we have established a tripartite structure to pursue these common goals. This type of structure for achieving consensus is a typical feature of the European system in general and we are happy to see it replicated by this conference.

This approach is particularly important for the development of consensus as we manage the dramatic changes underway in our populations and economies. In the European Union, like the United States, the structure of the working population and employment patterns are changing: our workforce is aging; the proportion of female workers is rising; there is an increase in casual and part-time work; and, in economic sectors other than agriculture, self-employment and jobs in the service sector continue to grow.

3. European Health and Safety Policy

I'd like to say a few words about the development of the European health and safety legislation, our equivalent of US laws and regulations. It may be particularly useful for those in the audience from America to think about the European dimension as reflecting both pan-European aspects and individual country aspects, much as here in the United States there may be distinctions between national and state aspects.

With the establishment of the European Communities (now known as the European Union, which includes 15 member countries and will soon be enlarged by an additional 100 million people in eastern and central Europe), the need for a European rather than a country-by-country approach to the health and safety of workers became evident.

Since the last century, social policies had been developed in our individual Member States and progressive improvements had been made in occupational health and safety protection. However, the pace of change differed from one country to another. There were also wide differences in the measures adopted to insure the health and safety of workers. It was recognized that occupational health and safety should receive attention at the European Community level. Improvement and equality in this area have subsequently been major objectives of Community initiatives. Since 1978 and the first Community programme of action, there has been a development from total dependence on national legislation towards widespread acceptance of the role of central legislation.

The drive to complete the single European market has also emphasised the need for higher standards in the Member States concerning social policies. In order to ensure that competition, productivity and protection of workers are on an equal footing, the single market had to be complemented by minimum (although not minimal) requirements for health and safety at work.

Changes were made to the EU's basic treaties -- our constitution, if you will -- that laid the legal foundation for development of health and safety policies on a European rather than a strictly national basis. Through the introduction of Article 118A of the Treaty of the European Communities by the Single Act, our first major treaty amendment, the Community expressed its wish to achieve the upward harmonisation of health and safety conditions at the workplace towards gradually higher levels of protection. This enabled the Council, our decision-making body, to adopt minimum requirements to be gradually implemented, having regard to the conditions and technical rules obtaining in each of the Member States and without prejudice to the adoption by the Member States themselves of more stringent measures for the protection of working conditions, provided they were compatible with the Treaty.

This established new powers to enable the Community to legislate in this field through the laying down of minimum safety specifications applicable to the design of machinery and equipment, thus enabling a high level of protection to be ensured through the establishment of essential requirements. This facilitated the completion of the internal market and the freedom of movement for workers, thus making a reality of what we call the social dimension of European integration. In 1988 the Commission proposed, and the Council of Ministers approved, a broad legislative programme designed to implement Article 118A, the objectives of which were as follows:

  • to cover the maximum number of risks with the minimum number of legislative instruments in order to avoid fragmented legislation;
  • to cover the specific requirements of certain high-risk activities or sectors and certain categories of workers who are particularly vulnerable;
  • to ensure consistency between the Community provisions adopted in connection with the establishment of the internal market (that is, directives adopted on the basis of Article 100A which set out the essential health and safety requirements to be observed during the design, manufacture and marketing of products) and the directives adopted on the basis of Article 118A which relate to protective measures to improve health and safety conditions at the workplace, including the use of machinery and equipment.

In the 1988 programme, the Commission stated its intention to prepare directives on various subjects to protect the health and safety of workers at work, among others:

  • the organisation of safety at work;
  • the appropriate use of plant, machinery, equipment and substances;
  • safety signs;
  • exposure limit values;
  • protection from occupational carcinogens.

Most of the directives planned under this programme have already been adopted. Other proposals for directives are under discussion at the Council of Ministers and also now in the European Parliament following adoption of the Amsterdam Treaty. (This is our latest treaty amendment which has given the Parliament codecision powers with the Council - very much as both your House and your Senate must approve legislation.)

In this way, the European Union has acquired a substantial body of legislation, the basic text of which is Directive 89/391/EEC (also known as the "Framework Directive") on measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work.

This is a highly preventive piece of legislation: it defines the employer as the person responsible for the health and safety of workers in every aspect relating to their work; it determines the general preventive principles which must be applied; it lays down the obligations of both employers and workers; and it makes worker information, training, consultation and participation the focal point of the preventive policies to be implemented within a company, in accordance with a risk assessment which must be carried out by it.

This piece of legislation has so far been supplemented by fifteen individual directives which extend the basic text by means of specific across-the-board provisions, such as the directives on workplaces, work equipment, personal protection equipment, the handling of loads, or the provision of written signs. Others concern high-risk areas such as the construction industry, fisheries, mining and off-shore oil and gas.

By ensuring minimum levels of protection for all EU workers, this legislation enables workers to move around freely and eliminates the distortions of trade which arose as a result of differing national laws and the varying impact they had on labour costs.

The fundamental objective pursued by the European Union - that of ensuring that its citizens enjoy a high level of safety in the workplace wherever it may be within the Union - was consolidated last year with the entry into force of the Amsterdam Treaty, in which competitiveness, job creation, employability, flexibility and safety at work are given quasi-constitutional status.

The European Member States have made considerable efforts to transpose European legislation so that more than 95% is now transposed into national laws and regulations. The Commission is at present examining whether National legislation is in conformity with the EU directives in each Member State. This is one of the roles of the Commission which ensures our high-level of popularity.

It is important to emphasize that correct transposition needs to be matched by proper implementation and practical application. So the European Commission, based on reports which Member States are required to submit, and its own evaluation, is also assessing the implementation of national legislation, its degree of compliance at workplace level as well as the enforcement effort deployed in application.

Especially in view of the pre-accession strategy which is designed to help countries in the rest of Europe to gradually adopt our legislation in preparation for joining the EU, it is important that the European Union together with its Member States demonstrates that the common standards are not only agreed, but also implemented and enforced.

But we must also look ahead. The European Union is undergoing a period of profound change. The forthcoming period will be characterised by rapid and far-reaching changes in technology and skills. Like the US economy, the EU economy is becoming increasingly knowledge-based. The revolution in information technology is leading to the prospect of a new "information society" where the possession and use of information is assuming ever greater importance.

In this context, it should be stressed that improved health and safety in the workplace can strengthen companies' competitiveness rather than be a burden.

The protection of workers is not incompatible with the need to support the competitivity of enterprises, in particular SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises). The Commission considers that measures aimed at reducing the costs (to employers, workers and Member States) of ill-health and accidents can all play their part in the development of an efficient, competitive, quality-based economy.

We must convince our societies that best practices in health and safety are very valuable assets in global markets. A workforce convinced that serious efforts have been made to protect its safety will respond with improved productivity. This in turn will contribute towards a better employment performance and a reduction in the EU's current unacceptable jobless level. European policy-makers have long recognised the significance of health and safety at work. Almost two thirds of European legislation in the social sphere relates to this field. We are proud of what has been achieved. But there is still more that we can do.

The basic statistics carry a powerful message. Over 6000 deaths each year still occur in the European Union from work-related accidents and injuries. Hundreds of thousands of cases of serious injury lead to permanent disability. This is not the result of bad luck or freak circumstances. It is largely the result of carelessness, negligence, bad management and incompetence and entails a huge cost in terms of human suffering. It also represents a huge cost in economic terms, which acts as an impediment to increased growth in output and employment.

The figures for health care, disability insurance, and early retirement expenditures resulting from work related illness, accidents and injuries are compelling arguments in favour of a renewed effort to improve our health and safety policies.

On top of these come costs arising from lost production. Some studies have estimated the overall cost to the European economy at around 2% to 3% of GDP. I repeat: 2% to 3% of GDP. Imagine the benefits in putting this expenditure to better use, for example, by investing in job creation.

Now, a word about small and medium sized enterprises.

The European Commission is conscious of the need to ensure that health and safety legislation does not hold back the creation and development of SMEs. It is important to ensure, therefore, that EU health and safety legislation takes account of their particular needs and allows them to meet their obligations effectively and efficiently. This in turn can aid their competitiveness and contribute to higher safety standards in SMEs. The Commission aims to assist this process through more user-friendly guides to the legislation concerned. In all this, the success of the Commission's actions in safety and health at work would be unthinkable without the involvement of the social partners. Successful action on health and safety can only be achieved with their joint support.

This tripartite joint conference will, I believe, illustrate the advantages of working together, and of the active involvement of the Social Partners in every aspect regarding health and safety.

4. Sharing Ideas and Developments

This conference will be of great value to we Europeans. The European Union continues to learn a great deal from the economic and employment achievements of the United States. We admire your employment creation record, your workplace innovation and your technology achievements. We spend a lot of time trying to work out how you do it.

We hope that you will also wish to analyse what we are achieving in Europe, how we are improving and modernising our social protection systems, and how we are fighting against social exclusion. On our side, there has been important progress since our first joint conference and we are eager to tell you more about it.

As I have said, we are also preparing for our future enlargement to the Central and Eastern European Countries. Important new adaptations to the EU Treaties are being negotiated, as we speak.


Ladies and gentlemen, Europe is on the move. As we move forward, it will be for my colleagues working in this crucial field to ensure that our policy and opinion makers never forget that to reduce risks in the work place is to reduce disruption. It improves production and makes for a more secure and more motivated workforce. That is what the European social model is all about. It seeks to combine productivity and solidarity.

Now, I would like to invite all of you to participate actively in the discussions and debates planned for this joint conference. I am convinced that the open exchange of experiences and practices will enrich our respective points of view.

I am also confident that this kind of event will contribute much to helping us, on both sides of the Atlantic, to raise the profile of health and safety in our respective systems.

Thank you.