NIOSH Head Says Global Safety Is Biggest 21st Century Challenge

The heads of the three U.S. government agencies responsible for occupational safety and health addressed the theme of "Leadership in Safety and Health" during the plenary session yesterday (Sept. 20) at the World Congress on Safety and Health at Work in Orlando, Fla.

John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), asserted that developing a global workplace safety and health system, in the absence of a world government, is the biggest challenge facing the profession.

Earlier in his presentation, Howard explored the differences between managers and leaders. According to Howard, leaders tend to be imaginative and inspire others to see problems in new ways, while managers are more oriented to details and solving problems.

"A manager rules," Howard said. "A leader is followed."

Jonathan Snare, deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, and David Dye, acting assistant secretary of labor for Mine Safety and Health, explained to the international audience the "balanced approach" their agencies are taking to improve workplace safety. The balanced approach, they said, includes enforcement, outreach and education and voluntary programs.

The plenary session began with an emotional speech given by Canadian Shirley Hickman, whose son died in a 1996 workplace explosion. Hickman is active in Threads of Life, an organization that provides support and peer counseling to the surviving family members of those killed or seriously injured at work.

"Remember, every statistic you talk about is a family member," Hickman concluded. "What you are doing today is not about statistics, it's about preventing a family from suffering a lifetime of pain and loss."

When she finished, Hickman received a standing ovation.

Don Mader of Underwriters Laboratories Inc. followed Hickman with a talk about how product safety standards are evolving toward global harmonization in the context of global trade.

At the end of the presentations, Garrett Brown, an inspector in California's state OSHA program, asked Snare, Dye and Howard a question that has emerged as a major theme of the World Congress: whether globalization will lead to higher safety and health standards or "a race to the bottom."

Snare replied that he believes government has a leadership responsibility to help ensure that globalization leads to improved protections for all workers.

"I think a pernicious aspect of globalization is the ignoring of occupational safety and health," said Howard. Although he confessed he didn't know how to solve the problem, he concluded the plenary session by declaring, "that's our biggest challenge for the coming century."

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