Welcoming Remarks
Davitt McAteer
Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health
US/EU Conference 2000: Critical Issues in Occupational Safety and Health
November 15, 2000

Davitt McAteer Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health

It is a great pleasure to welcome all of you to San Francisco, and to the second tripartite conference on occupational safety and health between the European Union and the United States.

We are delighted to be able to host this meeting, the first of its kind to be held in the U.S. Safety and health in the workplace has been a high priority for President Clinton and Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, and we hope that all the representatives of management, labor and government -- from all the European Union nations and the United States -- all of you -- will find your visit both enjoyable and useful in forwarding our common goal of improving worker safety and health.

Two years ago, when we met for the first time, in Luxembourg, we formed new acquaintanceships among our various organizations, and opened a dialogue that, we agreed, should continue.

This week we will hear updates on topics that were opened in the earlier meeting, such as the Internet. We will go more deeply into topics that were only touched upon at the earlier meeting, such as workers' rights. And we will go into new topics such as ergonomics -- a subject that could hardly be more timely from the U.S. point of view, as you will know if you have been following the news in this country recently.

It's fitting that such an international meeting should take place here in San Francisco, a place whose strong international tradition dates back 150 years. As you know, Native Americans were the original population of California. The first Europeans to make their homes here were Spanish. But until quite recently this was a quiet backwater. In 1847, it had less than 500 residents.

Then in 1848 an immigrant from Switzerland, John Sutter, and his partner found gold not far from here -- pea-sized gold nuggets washed out of sand in the American River. Then started the famous gold rush that brought an inrush of population from all over the United States and the world.

The gold seekers came by wagon across the desert and by ship around Cape Horn. They came from the cities and farms of the Eastern United States, and they came from around the globe. They were German, Irish, Mexican, Chinese, Scottish, Australian, African-American, English, French, and eastern European.

So many arrived in one year, 1849, that they became known as the Forty-Niners. (Not to be confused with the present-day Forty-Niners, the San Francisco football team that defeated the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday!)

In less than two years after Sutter's discovery of gold, this city had a population of over 100,000. It had newspapers -- including two French-language papers. It had theaters, banks, churches and synagogues; a medical society; and its first brick building. The city was hit with fires and earthquakes. It rebuilt. By 1851 it had several fire brigades, a hospital, an orphanage, horse-drawn public buses, and free schools for its children. On one day, you could have seen 475 ships docked in its warehouse-lined harbor from all over the world.

Merchants from all over the world offered their goods, and hundreds of local businesses also sprang up. If you had been here 150 years ago today, you could have met workers in a tremendous range of jobs: butchers, bakers, brewers, grocers; boarding house and hotel keepers; tailors, shoemakers, barbers, doctors, pharmacists, bankers, hardware dealers, sailors and fishermen, carpenters, teamsters and of course miners. Factory workers soon were to join their numbers. Many of the jobs were hazardous. A hundred and fifty years ago, no one thought much about making work conditions safe and healthful.

Like many other dangers, job hazards in 1850 were taken for granted. After all, travelers to California faced possibly dying of thirst in the desert or drowning in a shipwreck. Once here, many people lived in crowded and unsanitary living conditions that led to dysentery, cholera and typhoid. Residents of the new city faced repeated earthquakes and fires. Dangers like these overshadowed concern about injuries or illnesses on the job.

Today, it is the same place and yet a different world. San Francisco is as cosmopolitan as ever -- and more so, with a population from all over the globe. It is home to people in more diverse jobs than ever in history, including many traditional jobs, and also hi-tech jobs that didn't exist 10 years ago. And today we come here to talk about a subject that was far from anyone's mind in 1850, occupational safety and health. No longer do we take for granted frequent tragedies due to travel, lack of sanitation, fires or natural disasters -- and no longer do we take for granted a toll of deaths, injuries and illnesses on the job.

Our meeting today to discuss international cooperation on occupational safety and health has a heritage that dates to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. This conference, which adopted the Convenant of the League of Nations, also adopted a constitution for a new International Labor Organization (ILO) as part of the Treaty of Versailles.

Under the chairmanship of American labor leader Samuel Gompers, representatives from nine countries worked out the ILO constitution. They shared the same motives that bring us together today -- a concern for workers and their families, a vision of international cooperation, and the principle of a level playing field where workers' well-being is not to be traded for competitive advantage. They also established a tripartite organization, involving management, labor and government, a principle that we are following today. Unlike the original League of Nations, the ILO -- as you know -- has continued and expanded up to the present day. The organization has developed and its members have ratified dozens of conventions on aspects of workers' well-being, safety and health. In addition, the international community has developed and is continually developing new avenues for international cooperation. This second meeting between the European Union and the United States is one example and is especially promising in expanding communications to improve workers safety and health.

While you are here, if you have an interest in California's gold mining heritage and have some time to spare, there are areas out in the countryside that you can visit where people still wash the river sands in shallow pans to look for flakes of gold -- as a diversion on weekends or vacations. You can rent the equipment and try it yourself for a few hours. But today, the rich network of San Francisco's trade and local business no longer depends on gold.

As gold mining opportunities declined, emigrants soon fanned out from San Francisco to new places. Some of the miners moved on to the neighboring state of Nevada and beyond. There they found silver and gold in underground veins, which exacted a cost of many lives lost in mine fires and collapses and clouds of choking silica dust.

In time, the horrifying accidents in these mines and in other jobs of the day did slowly gain public attention and lead to safety and health improvements. But not in that generation.

Others of the Forty-Niners eventually returned home to their farms or cities. If most of them had not gained great wealth, they had gained experience - travel, meeting challenges of survival, learning to get along with others from all corners of the world, and the memory of taking part in an important moment of history.

On behalf of the U.S. government delegation, let me say that I hope that everyone here also will return from this meeting feeling richer in experience -- and with the sense of taking part in an important moment of history, a period when cooperative global interconnections are multiplying rapidly in response to a new global economy.

One day, another generation will look back upon this period as we look back on the Forty-Niners. I hope they will also look back upon this time as one when great strides were made globally in occupational safety and health among other areas.

We look back today with some surprise at an image of a past San Francisco plagued with dysentery, typhoid and cholera. Perhaps in the same way future generations will look back with some surprise at the problems with which we struggle, like construction fatalities, chemical burns, job-related hearing loss and lung disease.

Let that day be our goal as we work together -- management, labor and government -- to strengthen job safety and health protections, not only on paper but on every job every day. Let our goal be a future where it's taken for granted that every worker returns home safely each day and can look forward to a long and healthy retirement.

Once again, welcome.