Here are highlights of remarks by OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels speaking last week at the Sixth EU-US Joint Conference on Health and Safety at Work in Boston:

”…while we discuss issues within the walls of these conference rooms, out there... in the working world… lives are at stake, and we must never lose sight of the responsibility we have to give a voice to every working man and woman.

”Over the last year, the families of workers who were killed on the job have come to me, pleading for changes in regulations and practices that will prevent other workers from dying. They beg us to take action so that others will be spared their grief and loss.

”I am thinking of the wife and two children left without their father, Eleazar Torres-Gomez, a 46-year-old worker who was roasted alive at a Cintas laundry plant in Oklahoma after he fell onto an unguarded conveyor and was dragged into a 300-degree industrial dryer. He was already dead from burns when another worker found him 20 minutes later.

”And I am thinking of Jeff Davis, who was working in an oil refinery in Delaware when a 415,000-gallon tank of sulfuric acid exploded. His body was never recovered -- because this 50-year-old man literally dissolved in the acid resulting from a welding spark that ignited vapors in the storage tank. Jeff's wife, Mary, and her five children were left without a husband and father. Eight of Jeff's co-workers were also injured in this explosion.

”Indeed, In the last few months here in the United States, we have know much loss and grief: Seven workers were killed in a refinery fire in Anacortes, Washington; 29 coal miners perished in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia; 11 more were lost in the Deepwater Horizon explosion off the coast of Louisiana; and when the Kleen Energy power plant construction site in Connecticut blew up, six more workers were killed.

”…we are working in the United States to make fundamental changes in the way employers and workers cooperate to secure safe workplaces. Earlier this year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched rulemaking that would require employers in America to implement an effective Injury and Illness Prevention Program that would be tailored to hazards in their workplaces.

”Instead of waiting for a government inspection or a workplace tragedy to address workplace hazards, employers would be required to develop an organized, comprehensive, effective plan to find the safety and health hazards in their facilities that might injure or kill workers -- and then fix those hazards.

”On the subject of chemical hazards in our workplaces, I am pleased to note that we are taking positive steps: The United States is moving ahead on revising the Hazard Communication Standard to make it consistent with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals. I am aware that the European Union is also in the process of updating its regulations to align with the third revision of the GHS. We look forward to our continued collaboration in this important area.

”There is a larger chemical safety issue that we must confront. Thousands of new and potentially hazardous chemicals have been created in the last half-century, and many of our existing Permissible Exposure Limits are decades out of date. Updating these limits and establishing individual standards for individual chemicals demands a tremendous amount of resources and takes years to establish, even as new chemicals posing unknown hazards continue to appear in workplaces.

”This piecemeal approach to addressing chemical safety is no longer workable in the United States or in the EU. Together, we must find broader, more sweeping solutions. Here in America, we opened a forum to ask workers, employers, the scientific community and others for new, innovative ideas -- and we need perspectives from the EU as well.”

Dr. Michaels described four areas of US and EU cooperation:

1. Safety and Health Knowledge Management. Knowledge about how to prevent worker injuries and illnesses -- how to recognize and address hazards -- is useless unless we can place this information in the hands of workers and employers. The challenge before us is: How do we raise awareness of existing solutions and how do we build a preventative culture in our workplaces? Also, how do we preserve safety and health expertise in workplaces and ensure that knowledge is passed from generation to generation?

2. The role of indicators in developing and assessing OSH strategies. Systematic management can and should be applied to address risk factors and collect pertinent and accurate information to track progress in worker health and safety -- but which factors should be used, and what measurements will yield a useful picture? How can we ensure that recordkeeping and reporting systems provide data that is appropriate and accurate? We need to agree on and develop Key Performance Indicators that will help us monitor trends and focus on preventing workplace tragedies.

3. Worker Protection Systems, or Safety and Health Management Systems. Labor organizations and management generally support the idea of using business processes to improve safety and health performance; but management often expresses concerns about the costs and time commitment while labor groups sometimes react negatively to management approaches to implementing and maintaining these systems. We will compare US and EU systems, how these can be improved, and what can be done to motivate more widespread use of these systems to protect workers.

4. Addressing Chemical Exposures on the Job. For the third time in our joint conferences, we are recognizing the critical issues related to the use of chemicals in the workplace. In previous meetings, we have discussed risk management for individual chemicals in workplaces. At this conference, one workgroup will consider how to address the hazards of mixtures of chemicals -- including hazard assessment, exposure limits, appropriate controls, and the impact on preparing labels and safety data sheets. In addition, the participants will explore the use of respiratory protection for chemicals, as well as examine effective worker training practices for chemical safety and health.

”As we work together, let us keep foremost in our minds these two ideals:
  • No employer should be allowed to put profit ahead of worker safety.
  • No human being should be at risk of dying in order to earn a living.