Charles N. Jeffress
United States/ European Union
Conference on Occupational Safety and Health
San Francisco, CA
November 15, 2000
Mr. Richardson, distinguished heads of delegations and representatives of government, labor and industry from the European Union and the United States. Welcome to San Francisco, a city of wonderful contrasts from modern skyscrapers to Spanish missions to Victorian style mansions. Travel by historic cable car or modern subway. See the glories of nature in the majesty of the giant redwood trees or the ingenuity of man in the Golden Gate bridge. Enjoy the finest wines America has to offer from the nearby Napa Valley. We trust you will have a pleasant and interesting stay here.
We are especially pleased you could join us for the second joint conference focusing on critical issues in occupational safety and health. President Bill Clinton has made workplace safety and health a high priority as evidenced by our publication this week of a new regulation on ergonomics to protect workers from musculoskeletal disorders. We in the U.S. know that we have much to learn and much to share about safety on the job. We welcome each of you-labor, business and government representatives-as our partners in this effort.
I want to especially thank Mr. Biosca, Mr. Alvarez and Ms. Vorce for their hard work to make this conference possible. We're all grateful for your efforts to make things run smoothly and to enable us to work effectively together.
The U.S. and the EU are at the beginning of a new century and new era. The world is still round-as Columbus demonstrated when he left your continent to find this one. But we live on a much smaller planet than we shared even 20 years ago.
Rapid change is shrinking our world. Three weeks ago President Clinton acknowledged this in setting up the U.S. "Commission on Workers, Communities, and Economic Change in the New Economy." This advisory committee is going to study "the impact of international trade, technology, globalization and the changing nature of work on both workers and their communities" in the U.S. It will examine ways to smooth the transition as work and jobs evolve. This is one of the efforts our government is making to provide a safety net for workers caught in the vortex of change. As President Clinton puts it, we want to keep giving a chance to catch up to the people that are left behind in the emerging global economy.
The New Economy knows no boundaries, recognizes no borders. Globalization has all but swept away the geography that divides us. Supersonic travel, fiber optics and orbiting satellites bridge an ever-narrowing Atlantic Ocean. There's a seamless flow of information that breaches time zones and breaks across national barriers.
More than ever before, the hopes and futures of our countries and our people are intertwined. We live in an interwoven, interdependent global economy.
We have different laws and different languages. But the U.S. and the EU share similar health and safety goals: We want to send workers home whole and healthy every day. To do that, we need to identify best practices to protect workers.
We need to know what works, whether it's in Madrid, Milan or Milwaukee. If there's a better idea in Athens or Amsterdam or Atlanta, we'd like to hear about it. If it keeps workers safe in Bordeaux, maybe it will work in Brussels and Boston, too. As we share effective approaches, we can improve safety and health for all our workers.
We're building on the strong foundation we laid with the first conference in Luxembourg two years ago. There we began a dialogue that has continued. We've launched a joint EU/OSHA website that includes information from all our countries-and links to individual country and EU safety and health sites as well. We will have a presentation of that this morning.
And it is helpful to remember that our conversation is taking place in a larger context. President Clinton has said "you can't have a global trading system apart from a global social conscience." Part of that social conscience is a recognition of a worker's fundamental right to a safe and healthful working environment.
Worker safety and health issues have been moving toward the frontburner of international trade discussions. They've also become a hot issue among consumers. In the U.S., some are questioning whether employers abroad enjoy a trade advantage at the expense of their workers' safety and health. And they've been very vocal in expressing their concerns. This is a grassroots movement in our country focusing on labor rights, particularly safety and health for workers.
More than 50 U.S. college campuses have chapters of United Students Against Sweatshops. This group seeks to persuade student buyers as well as universities who license apparel to boycott manufacturers that contract with overseas factories where workers labor for low wages in unsafe conditions. This group is expanding, and its influence is growing. It will be a short step from the focus on apparel to a focus on other consumer products.
But you and I know this issue is bigger than any one country. We all saw the dramatic protest against the World Trade Organization at its ministerial meeting in Seattle a year ago. Or more recent protests against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in April and against the Organization of American States in Windsor, Ontario in June and again this fall in Prague. One of the primary issues in these protests is the safety and health of third-world workers hired by first-world companies and their contractors.
In the U.S., our safety and health requirements address employers and the safety and health of their employees. But the issues that concern consumers are much broader. How do materials produced across the country or across the globe affect the safety and health of workers at that particular worksite?
What about multi-national employers? They may have a good U.S. or European safety and health record. But do they hold their contractors in developing nations accountable for worker safety and health?
And how do we include contingent workers? Does the safety and health management system at the site cover them? It has become more and more common to contract out the "dirty work." Safety records in the U.S. are not site-specific, but employer-specific. So, it's possible to have a clean safety record by transferring all the hazardous work to someone else. How can we assure the safety and health of workers employed by one company but working full-time on the premises of another company?
We need more models-those who demonstrate excellence. And we need more mentors-those who shepherd others toward excellence. At this conference we hope to identify best practices in four crucial areas to guide those striving to serve as models and mentors and for employers and employees that want to follow them.
In the U.S. OSHA recognizes model sites with excellent workplace safety and health efforts through its Voluntary Protection Program or VPP. Today, more than 650 workplaces fly the VPP flag, proclaiming their excellence in safety and health. That's an increase of 200 worksites just since we gathered two years ago. And the success of these sites is most encouraging. Together VPP sites in more than 180 industries are saving $130 million each year because their injury rates are 50 percent below the average for their industries.
The reason is very simple. VPP participants all have outstanding safety and health programs.
Safety and health management systems are crucial to preventing injuries and illnesses in the workplaces. That is why I'm pleased that we are focusing on this issue at our joint conference this year. We still do not have a universal requirement for safety and health programs in this country. And we need one. It is the only way to ensure ongoing progress in workplace safety and health.
Many of you represent countries where it would be unthinkable not to have a safety and health program on the job. We're counting on learning from you how to make that work in the U.S. Our tripartite format will be particularly useful as we look at this issue from the viewpoint of labor, management and government.
Worksites with effective safety and health management systems have usually addressed ergonomics, the fit between the worker and the work. Musculoskeletal disorders are one of the most serious safety and health problems American workers face. And with our adoption of a standard this week, the United States has taken a big step towards this goal. But I need to remind our European friends that when a safety and health standard is adopted in this country, a lawsuit usually follows. I expect that our new standard will be tied up in litigation for at least another year.
I know that MSDs are of great concern in the EU as well. Just a few weeks ago your European Week for Safety and Health at Work called attention to the steps workers and employers can take to prevent back pain and other MSDs. Many of your countries are well ahead of us on this issue. But we are trying to catch up. And we appreciate your sharing your struggles and your successes with us over the next few days.
Another issue that concerns all of us is helping small and medium enterprises improve workplace safety and health. Most employers in the U.S. are small-90 percent have fewer than 20 employees. At these enterprises, everyone has multiple roles and juggles a variety of responsibilities. We want to see that safety and health isn't one of the balls that gets dropped.
Here in America, we are using new technologies to reach these employers. No one deliberately sets out to hurt employees. Often, it's just a matter of knowing-or not knowing-what the hazards are and how to protect workers.
To assist these smaller enterprises, we have developed an extensive website to provide helpful information. We have a dozen interactive software programs that can be downloaded from the site to guide employers through regulations. These "expert advisors" produce a report tailored to the responses an employer gives. The report tells the employer how a regulation affects the workplace and what must be done to meet the requirements.
We also offer free consultations for small businesses to help them establish safety and health management systems or deal with individual hazards. In addition, some of our VPP sites have been able to mentor smaller firms. Who could be better than the best companies to bring others along?
We've held two national small business conferences to spread the word about ways we can help small businesses. And we've held scores of regional sessions as well. Not only are we looking for ways to provide information, but we're also looking for opportunities for feedback. Small businesses now take part in our standard-setting process from the earliest stage under a new law designed to involve them from the beginning.
Workers play a critical role in occupational safety and health. Their involvement is key to the success of any effort to prevent injuries and illnesses. That is why we've written specific worker participation requirements into our new ergonomics standard.
In the U.S., 85 percent of workers are not members of unions. Thus, it is not always clear who best represents their interests. Reaching unorganized workers and empowering them to participate in their safety and health programs is vital. Encouraging them to contact OSHA for information or to report problems is also a challenge.
Last spring OSHA established a new worker page on its website-one specific location for workers to learn about their rights and to report complaints electronically if they wish. We've also developed a new worker-friendly poster that will go in all U.S. workplaces to give workers information they need to reach us.
All four of these topics that we will focus on for the next three days are important topics for us. I anticipate it's going to be a fascinating and informative conference as we learn from one another.
Our commitment to partnering with our EU counterparts remains steadfast. We appreciate your joining us here in California, and we look forward to a lively and fruitful exchange.