Dr. David Michaels
Assistant Secretary of Labor
for Occupational Safety and Health
Committee on Employment and Social Affairs
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
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Madam Chair, Members of the European Parliament, distinguished guests:
It is a personal pleasure and a professional honor to address you today. I am delighted to be here in Brussels, a great international city steeped in history and a long-respected center for thinking and problem solving.
I bring warm greetings from United States Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.
I am grateful for the opportunity to address this distinguished assembly. Very briefly, I will speak to you about the state of occupational safety and health in the U.S. and the opportunities we see for global progress through our collaboration with the European Union.
By profession, I am an epidemiologist. I have devoted my career to identifying, measuring and preventing workplace hazards that can profoundly affect the lives of working men and women. Now, as the administrator for the United States' agency charged with protecting the safety and health of workers, I am more eager than ever to meet with my EU colleagues to establish ways that we can collaborate.
This year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of my agency. Forty years ago, the U.S. Congress responded to the carnage in the American workplace by passing the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The legislation created OSHA and provided workers with a new basic right – the right to a safe and healthful workplace.
Today workplaces in America are far safer than 40 years ago. Before OSHA, approximately 38 workers a day were killed on the job; today, with a workforce twice as large, the daily average is 12.
We have made great progress, but our work is not done.
More than 4,500 workers a year are killed on the job. Each year, uncounted thousands of men and women in my country die from occupational diseases. And each year, more than 3 million workers are seriously injured – here we are speaking of burns, bruises, broken bones and amputations. Indeed, the situation is probably worse because we know there is significant under-reporting of workplace injuries.
But these are cold statistics. They don't capture the true human and social costs of work-related injury and illness. We need to remind ourselves that statistics are just people with the tears washed off.
The European Union and the United States share many challenges in preventing work-related injuries and illnesses – challenges that weaken our social fabric and our economies. Among these are:
- poorly controlled exposure to numerous chemical hazards;
- emerging technologies that present new and often unknown hazards;
- an aging workforce;
- the increased use of temporary or leased workers, often uneducated in terms of safety and for whom local management has passed off responsibility;
- and a workforce with a significant proportion of workers with language and literacy barriers that disproportionately increase their injury and illness risk.
This last challenge is a profound one for both the U.S. and the EU. How do we reach these workers to ensure they know their rights, and how to recognize hazards and to protect themselves?
Another challenge we both face is how to ensure that small businesses adequately protect their workers. In the U.S., the smallest establishments (those with fewer than 20 employees) have fatality rates several times higher than larger workplaces.
While their risks are higher, owners of small businesses often lack the resources and expertise to properly train workers and manage hazards.
With so many shared challenges, it is only logical that we work together to find shared solutions.
In 1995, both sides signed the New Transatlantic Agenda to deepen and broaden cooperation between the U.S. and the EU on a wide variety of issues. Since then, a Working Group on Employment and Labor-Related Issues, composed of officials from the United States Department of Labor and the EU, has sponsored meetings, workshops and conferences to exchange ideas about a wide range of employment topics including occupational safety and health. The goal has been and remains: to assist policy makers on both sides of the Atlantic in ways that are mutually beneficial.
The first Joint Conference on Occupational Safety and Health was held in Luxembourg in 1998, and I am pleased to say we are working closely with our Commission colleagues on plans for the 7th Joint Conference, which will take place here in Brussels a year from now.
Yesterday I joined Mr. Koos Richelle and Mr. Armindo Silva to build upon our bilateral discussions. Together we charted our way forward toward high hopes for another successful joint conference. I welcome our further dialog in this area.
Now, following our last joint U.S.-EU meeting in Boston, my agency has become more engaged with EU-OSHA, and we are pleased at our strengthening ties.
One area we are looking forward to working on together is the prevention of occupational cancer. Although we do not have adequate studies on the fraction of cancers attributable to occupational exposure, there is no question that the disease is killing thousands of workers each year.
I commend this body for your renewed focus on occupational cancer. It is high time for us to go past asbestos and develop enforceable occupational exposure limits for silica and other well-known carcinogens. We need to identify and evaluate substitutes that can replace carcinogens and to develop engineering controls for those for which we cannot substitute.
The data developed as a result of REACH [Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemical substances] will be a vital tool in these efforts to control occupational cancer and other chronic work-related diseases. While here in Brussels, I have had the pleasure of meeting with the director of the European Chemicals Agency, Geert Dancet, to discuss how REACH can benefit workers and employers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Meanwhile, the United States will soon adopt the Globally Harmonized System for hazard communication that is employed here in the EU. A single, global approach to classifying chemicals, labeling, and preparing safety data sheets for chemicals will reduce hazards for workers, lower the compliance burden for employers, and facilitate trade.
Indeed, the U.S. and Europe are in agreement that managing the safe production and handling of chemicals presents a major challenge in which we must speak with one voice.
My agency's position is simple and direct: We believe the responsible position of any producer or exporter of hazardous materials should be to label dangerous products with clear warnings to prevent illness and death.
In the 20th century, we sought to manage most workplace hazards by developing and enforcing individual standards with prescribed procedures to mitigate those hazards. While these traditional measures have had positive impacts, they have not been enough.
It is clear that a new paradigm is needed to more effectively engage workers and employers, especially those in small and medium-sized enterprises. Specifically, we need to lead a change in workplace culture to encourage employers and workers to collaboratively address safety and health hazards.
In the U.S. we are leading this effort primarily through promotion of injury and illness prevention programs, or "safety and health management systems" as they are called. Most large, multi-national companies as well as many smaller companies have implemented these programs. These employers have seen first-hand how prevention programs help prevent injuries, save lives and reduce costs.
The U.S. and the E.U. share a common vision here: These prevention programs are essential for improving workplace safety and health. At the most recent joint U.S.–EU conference, tripartite working group members reached consensus on the elements deemed necessary for effective prevention programs. Our successful collaboration can serve as a blueprint to develop the tools that employers and workers need to successfully implement these programs.
Our approaches have much in common. Like you, we continually review our strategic plan to gauge our success. We engage our social partners early in the process to seek their views, which help shape our priorities and initiatives. It is therefore not surprising that every time the European Union and the United States meet – to exchange ideas, to learn from each other, to address our shared problems – we find solutions. We benefit from each other's perspectives, and we move forward to improve conditions for our workers, our economies and our societies.
Our economies and our challenges are increasingly linked as more employers take on multinational dimensions. Today 10 percent of workers in the EU are employed by U.S.-owned companies, and 10 percent of U.S. workers are employed by EU companies. We have globalized trade and employment, but we have not globalized worker protection to a comparable extent. This must be our shared goal.
And as we work to protect employees in both the EU and the U.S., we also need to consider our larger role in global worker protection. For, if we believe that all workers should be able to come home safely to their families at the end of their shifts, then worker safety and health is more than a labor issue or a factor in an economics discussion; it's an issue of global human rights.
We cannot avoid the difficult but important question: What is our responsibility to the worker in a developing country or an emerging industrial power, laboring in unsafe conditions to produce consumer goods for the United States or for Europe? As consumers of the products of her labor, do we share an obligation to ensure that she is able to work without putting her health and safety at risk? I believe we do share that obligation.
So, it is appropriate that I address you during this Transatlantic Week – an event intended to raise the profile of the transatlantic relationship or our nations, and to foster a dialogue on shared purpose and joint action among U.S. and EU policy makers.
In these times of economic crisis, there are concerns on both sides of the Atlantic that regulations interfere with the free flow of commerce, and that imposing rules on our industries causes the loss of jobs, or puts businesses at a disadvantage with competitors in other nations where standards are lax and workers are less protected.
The truth is: In a globally competitive marketplace, we can't afford to have wasteful, inefficient industries, and nothing is more wasteful than workers who are sickened, injured and die from preventable hazards. We must not forget that every year a needed worker protection regulation is delayed is a year that more workers will be needlessly injured or sickened from exposure to hazardous chemicals.
The fact is that sensible safeguards that require employers to protect their workers drive workplaces to become more efficient, more productive, more innovative, more competitive and more profitable. The empirical evidence is clear: Regulations do not kill jobs; they stop jobs from killing workers!
In these competitive, challenging times, the U.S. and the EU need each other more than ever, we are working together more closely than ever in our history, and our potential for success is greater than ever. This is why I am confident that, together, we can save lives and improve the health of workers on both sides of the Atlantic and, eventually, around the world.
This is a time for optimism, imagination, courage and bold action – qualities that the European Union and the United States possess in abundance.
In closing, I wish to thank the Chair and the members of the European Parliament for their commitment to occupational safety and health.
I also want to acknowledge the significant contributions to worker safety and health by Dr. Jukka Takala, Director of EU-OSHA. He will be leaving his post soon to lead the International Panel on Working Life. His contributions to worker safety and health have been huge. I wish him great success in his efforts to create a global network of collaborators to promote workplace improvements to reduce illness and injury on the job.
I also extend my best wishes to the incoming Director of EU-OSHA, Dr. Christa Sedlatschek, and I look forward to ongoing productive collaborations between our agencies.
Finally, I look forward to continued transatlantic collaborations as the EU and the U.S. take a leadership role to address global problems and construct shared solutions.
Thank you so much.