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The United States and the European Union have become increasingly dependent on one another in trade, and should expand those linkages to include worker safety, David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, told an international panel July 13.
“Our economies and our challenges are increasingly linked as more employers take on multinational dimensions,” Michaels said at the European Parliament's Committee on Employment and Social Affairs in Brussels, Belgium.
As evidence, Michaels pointed to the fact that 10 percent of all E.U. workers are employed by U.S.-owned companies, and vice versa.
“We have globalized trade and employment, but we have not globalized worker protection to a comparable extent,” Michaels said. “This must be our shared goal.”
Moreover, according to Michaels, “as we work to protect employees in the E.U. and the U.S., we also need to consider our larger role in global worker protection, for if we believe 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.”
As such, international policymakers must consider their responsibilities toward workers in developing countries or emerging industrial powers who may be laboring in unsafe conditions to produce consumer goods for the United States or for Europe, Michaels said.
“As consumers of the products of her labor, do we share an obligation to ensure that she is able to work without putting her safety and health at risk? I believe we do share that obligation,” he said.
Policymakers both domestically and in the E.U. also must be mindful of what Michaels said is the false argument that regulations interfere with commerce, and that regulating industry can cost jobs or put businesses at a disadvantage with competitors in 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,” Michaels said. “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.”
Michaels also said one of the top global challenges for worker safety is enforceable occupational exposure limits for silica and other carcinogens.
Michaels met with Geert Dancet, executive director of the European Chemicals Agency, and said they discussed how the E.U.'s Regulation for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH)—a 2007 regulation that requires manufacturers to register information about their chemicals into a central database—“can benefit workers and employers on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Michaels pointed to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's pending hazard communication rule that seeks to enforce a unified standard of classifying chemicals and preparing safety data sheets.
“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,” Michaels said.
He also said plans are underway for the seventh European Union/United States Joint Conference on Health and Safety at Work, to be held in Brussels in 2012.
The last joint conference was held in September 2010 in Boston.
Begun in 1998, the joint conference is a shared project between OSHA and the E.U. European Agency for Health and Safety at Work, which aims to “promote sharing of information on current safety and health topics of common interest,” according to a joint conference website.
By Stephen Lee
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