Recorded Remarks by
Dr. David Michaels
Assistant Secretary of Labor
for Occupational Safety and Health
XIX World Congress on Safety and Health at Work
September 11, 2011
My fellow national labor ministers, and conference attendees from around the world:
I congratulate the International Organizing Committee on bringing the 19th World Congress on Safety and Health at Work to Istanbul, a modern and international city that is also the cradle of many civilizations.
While I must attend major events today here in the United States that commemorate the tenth anniversary of one of the greatest tragedies in my nation's history, I am with you in spirit -- and my spirit is indeed very high when I contemplate the immense significance of this World Congress in Turkey.
The United States Department of Labor and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration applaud the progress, vision and commitment of everyone attending this world gathering. Secretary Hilda Solis and I eagerly support the goals of this Congress. The energy and expertise of its participants fill us with optimism for global improvements in working conditions.
With so many people at this World Congress bringing a diversity of perspectives -- from government, employers, workers, educators, and the scientific and engineering communities -- there can be no doubt that we will see immediate, practical outcomes in the short term as well as progress toward lasting reforms that will benefit everyone in our societies.
The economic turmoil affecting markets in every hemisphere of our planet today provides indisputable evidence that our individual nations' economies are linked. The growth of multinational corporations, the needs of new and vulnerable migrant and immigrant workers, the increased use of temporary or leased workers, often uneducated in terms of safety and for whom local management has passed off responsibility, the impact of emerging technologies that present new and often unknown hazards -- these divergent forces can either pull us apart or bring us together; it is our choice, our challenge, and our future.
In our modern, globalized economy, the world of work is constantly changing, and we must be prepared to monitor, analyze and adjust our strategies to respond to change.
For example, we recognize that today, small and medium enterprises are the source of much innovation and economic drive. In the United States, 99 percent of all enterprises employ fewer than 500 people, and these small and medium businesses employ more than half of all U.S. workers.
Nearly 87 percent of U.S. firms employ fewer than 20 workers; 33.5 million people work in these companies.
For these enterprises, worker protection is sometimes viewed as a costly, bureaucratic burden, when in fact good safety and health management is good for business.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that in 2009 more than 3.3 million serious occupational injuries and 4,500 deaths occurred among workers in the United States. The human cost of these preventable workplace injuries and deaths is incalculable. However, according to the 2010 Safety Index compiled by Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, the workers' compensation costs alone -- for the most disabling workplace injuries and illnesses in 2008 -- amounted to more than $53 billion, or more than one billion dollars a week.
The full cost in the United States is certainly much higher, and the worldwide cost of workplace injuries and illnesses is staggering. Is there any doubt among us that this money would be better spent on job creation and innovation, which is the strength of small businesses?
Then it stands to reason, if we can work together to help businesses avoid these costs, we will be helping our economies.
A key to good safety and health in small businesses is an effective and appropriate risk assessment and management system. This need not be complex or bureaucratic; rather, it should enable managers, supervisors and workers to know:
- what the hazards and risks are,
- what measures are in place to protect workers and to ensure that they are working properly, and
- what to do if working conditions change.
In the United States, both OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health -- NIOSH -- support the efforts of small and medium business owners to protect their workers. The vitality of these businesses is a global issue; therefore, what is needed is for all parties involved in occupational safety and health to collaborate and to identify cost-effective methods of protecting the workers in these economically important enterprises.
In these times of economic crisis, we hear concerns expressed that regulations interfere with the free flow of commerce, and that imposing safety and health rules 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 fact is, 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!
Indeed, 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: Each year that a needed regulation is delayed amounts to another year that more workers will be needlessly harmed
In these competitive, challenging times, our nations 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 around the world.
As we work together and seek ways to protect employees and assist employers in our individual nations, we also need to consider our larger role in global worker protection. If we believe that all workers have the right 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; this is an issue of global human rights.
We must ask ourselves: 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 the EU or another part of the world? 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, and I believe this issue of global responsibility to all workers is the greatest issue this Congress can address.
I want to thank Director-General of the International Labor Organization and the President of the International Social Security Administration for their commitment to worker safety and health. I congratulate the Minister of Labor and Social Security in Turkey for hosting this World Congress. I very much support the motto of this conference: "Building a Global Prevention Culture for a Healthy and Safe Future."
I also wish to express my thanks to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work for inviting my remarks on this auspicious occasion. In particular, allow me to congratulate Jukka Takala for five productive years as the Director of EU-OSHA and to welcome his successor, Christa Sedlatschek. Jukka, I wish you great success in your future endeavors, particularly with the International Working Life Panel. I look forward to our continued collaboration.
To everyone gathered in Istanbul, I want to leave you with this final thought:
This is a time for optimism, imagination, courage and bold action, and this World Congress can be the catalyst for change. The United States, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration join you, support you, and look forward to continued progress with you to find workable solutions that benefit our world now and for future generations.