On Behalf of US Industry
6th Joint US/EU Conference on Occupational Safety and Health
September 22, 2010
Frank A. White
Fellow Delegates and Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:
On behalf of my U.S. industry co-chair, the National Safety Council, and the other U.S. industry delegates, I am pleased and privileged to join the rest of the U.S. delegation in welcoming our European friends and colleagues to the distinctively American city of Boston, Massachusetts. Boston is certainly a dramatic contrast to the previous US venue for this conference in 2005, Orlando, Florida and Disney World. Boston is a birthplace of America; an authentic and historic city – historic by U.S. standards anyway. It is city where many of our country's founding principles were debated and tested. Today, Boston is well-known as the home of excellent beer, seafood and that unique semi-religious cult, Boston Red Sox baseball.
In the American game of baseball, there's one type of strategy of the game known as "small ball", where the team tries to score based on "small" incremental moves of players from one base to the next, relying on single base hits and walks – where you're not trying to win with big dramatic plays like home runs and extra-base hits – the players aren't "swinging for the fences" as the baseball expression goes.
I have to confess that in coming here to my fourth US-EU Safety and Health Conference, and with more than 35 years in the government and private sectors working in the area of workplace safety and health, I find myself less and less satisfied with the "small ball" game we've too often ended to play in the U.S. on OSH issues, those small increments of progress. I'm increasingly impatient to swing for the fences a bit more and to take a shot at hitting a couple of big home run balls.
And I especially feel that way when I come to a conference like this one – well, actually, there really are no other conferences like this one that I know of, where top European and American safety and health professionals from labor, industry and government get the opportunity to collectively and collaboratively consider how to improve worker safety and health. At the last US-EU Conference in Cascais, I had the privilege of making a few closing remarks and observed that, in my opinion at least, the EU had become the clear global leader in occupational safety and health, and that may of its ideas, policies and programs were being adopted both by industry leaders and by other regions and nations around the world. I believe that leadership position has not changed much in the last few years – what has changed, perhaps, is that government leaders in the U.S. have a clearer awareness that there is a great deal to learn from the EU and that U.S. policies and processes need to be re-examined and re-shaped to better fit the approaches being implemented globally.
So back to my baseball metaphor, I'm hoping that over the next few years, we in the U.S., with some coaching from the EU, can take a hard swing at a few key issues, which I'll briefly describe. The first priority should be, on the national level, making an emphatic and comprehensive shift to a risk-based approach to improving workplace safety and health. This is the fundamental underpinning of the EU's strategies for improving workplace safety and health that most of the rest of the developed and developing world and most leading businesses have embraced and are implementing. Providing employers and workers with the knowledge, assistance, tools and incentives to reduce risk is at the heart of the EU model and we have much to learn from you.
From a regulatory viewpoint, OSHA is aggressively stepping up the plate on this issue through the development of an injury and illness prevention program standard that would call on employers to identify hazards and assess, prioritize and control risks, applying management systems principles. It's very appropriate that the topic of management systems is squarely on the agenda of this conference.
What I hope that the discussions this week about this subject will make clear, based on the experience in the EU, is that the success of the transformation to a risk-based approach in the U.S. will depend on much more than just a new regulation and traditional enforcement. Rather, it will depend on providing extensive education and guidance and resources and tools and demonstrations of effectiveness to the hundreds of thousands of workplaces that currently have no idea how to perform a risk assessment or implement a basic management system around safety. These are areas where the EU has done an excellent job and can be of enormous assistance.
The second issue that I would love to take a big swing at is the topic of serious injury and fatality prevention. Some industry leaders are lately focusing more squarely on this subset of occupational incidents and injuries, trying first to evaluate why – even as our management systems have helped us reduce overall workplace injuries – the progress in reducing serious and deaths has been much less pronounced. And it's more than simply the fact that from a recordkeeping perspective it's easier to "hide" these more serious cases – we are convinced that there are multi-dimensional factors at play here that are within our reach and understanding. One of the impediments even to evaluating data to identify common factors is the often poor quality of the so-called "root cause" analyses of many serious incidents. While this topic of fatality and serious injury prevention is not on our agenda for this conference, I would love to engage in a U.S.-EU tripartite dialogue to see if we can work toward some common solutions.
The third "big topic" that I'd like to take a hard swing at and that is at least to some extent on this week's agenda, as it was, in part, in Cascais, is the subject of safety and health metrics – how we as government, as businesses and as worker representatives can get a fuller picture of whether we are improving workplace safety and health. I am not talking about more accurate injury and illness data under the current OSHA recordkeeping requirements, although accurate outcome data are surely important. What I am referring to is developing a "set" or "menu" of principally leading metrics that supplements and complements traditional "outcome" or "trailing" metrics and that hopefully is predictive of improved outcomes. We know, for example, that we can measure improvements in the maturity of key management system elements. Can we develop measures of reduced risks that could be used in the workplace and at the national level? I hope to learn what strides the EU is making in this area.
I should disclose to you that I was never a very good baseball player myself, certainly not a "big hitter", but I would encourage all of us, collectively, to look for opportunities to take some big swings because hitting an occasional home run is nearly as exciting as scoring a soccer goal with a bicycle kick!
I wish us all a successful conference.