Chao: Safety Must Remain a Core Value in Changing Workplace

As the U.S. work force braces for a "generational shift" brought about by the impending retirement of millions of baby boomers across the country, EHS stakeholders must work to build a "culture of safety within the organization that says safety is No. 1," U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao told attendees of the National Safety Council's (NSC) 93rd annual Congress and Expo, which is being held in Orlando, Fla., this week.

"[O]ur country's challenge is to preserve the gains made over the past 50 years by intensifying our health and safety programs for the incoming new generation of workers," Chao said today.

When baby boomers retire, they take with them all the safety and health knowledge accumulated from a lifetime of work experience, Chao explained. At the same time, the younger workers who replace them bring "relatively less health and safety experience" to the workplace.

"I urge you to continue to focus on education and training and be especially vigilant of new workers entering the work force," Chao said.

Even so, Chao cautioned that training by itself is not enough, nor can workers alone or employers alone ensure a safe workplace. Workers and employers must join together to achieve the goal.

"Every organization must have, as its core, values that make safety No. 1," Chao said. "Every supervisor, manager and worker must include health and safety in their responsibilities."

Chao touted the efforts of OSHA and MSHA for reducing workplace fatalities to "historic lows," lauding the agencies for having "the best health and safety record of any administration." She praised the agencies for successfully implementing the Department of Labor's multi-pronged philosophy of "strong fair and targeted enforcement," compliance assistance and the Enhanced Enforcement Program for repeat safety and health offenders.

She also noted that the agencies are using Web-based training tools to convey safety and health information, which is "especially important with today's technology-savvy younger generation."

Chao framed her remarks with statistics pointing to how "strong and resilient" the economy is. Among the statistics she cited, Chao said the U.S. economy has created more than 4 million new jobs since May 2003 and she added that the nation's unemployment rate for August 4.9 percent is lower than the average of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Other statistics point to the changing complexion and increasing complexity of the new U.S. work force. For example, the average American today changes jobs nine times before age 34, according to Chao.

The changing demographics of the U.S. work force particularly the retirement of the baby boomers "has implications for just about every major public policy issue, including health and safety," she said.

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