The United States and the European Union share many challenges in preventing work-related injuries and illnesses – challenges that “weaken our social fabric and our economies,” said Dr. David Michaels, in a speech earlier this month to the European Parliament Committee on Employment and Social Affairs.

The Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health said the shared challenges include:
  •  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.

Michaels called the language challenge “profound” 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.”

Michaels said it was logical for the U.S. and the EU to 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,” he noted. “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.”

Six Joint Conferences on Occupational Safety and Health have been held with a seventh in the planning stages. Michaels said he’s taken part in bilateral discussions with his European counterparts and that OSHA has become “more engaged” with EU-OSHA. “We are pleased at our strengthening ties.”

He emphasized the need to focus attention on the prevention of occupational cancer, despite the lack of 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.

“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.”

Michaels said the data developed as a result of REACH [Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemical substances] will be a vital tool in efforts to control occupational cancer and other chronic work-related diseases on both sides of the Atlantic.

He also pointed out that the United States will soon adopt the Globally Harmonized System for hazard communication that is already employed 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.”

In the 20th century, most workplace hazards were managed by developing and enforcing individual standards with prescribed procedures to mitigate those hazards. Michaels said that while those 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.”

He cited injury and illness prevention programs, or "safety and health management systems" as an example of the new paradigm that have been effective at preventing injuries, saving lives and reducing costs.

“The U.S. and the E.U. share a common vision here: These prevention programs are essential for improving workplace safety and health,” said Michaels. 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 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.

“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.”