Health and safety hazards encountered by custodians, palm tree workers, day laborers, nurses, and bakery workers are just some of the dozens of different occupations examined in research presented at this year’s annual meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA). The association’s Occupational Health and Safety Section marked its 100th anniversary and members designed the first phase of an electronic timeline to memorialize key events in the Section’s history. A special scientific session explored the OHS Section’s history, starting with its founding co-chairs George Kober, MD and Alice Hamilton, MD, through its leadership in developing more than 100 policy statements to address timely worker health and safety issues. The OHS Section’s active involvement in APHA’s policy development process continued this year with the adoption of new policies on the following four topics:
- Breast cancer and occupational exposure — In conjunction with increasing research into the connections between breast cancer and work-related exposures, urges the U.S. surgeon general to declare an association between certain chemicals and breast cancer as well as to emphasize the importance of identifying workplace exposures that contribute to breast cancer. Calls on relevant federal agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, to direct breast cancer research funds toward the study of occupational exposure and risk. Also urges federal agencies to investigate the prevalence of breast cancer among certain groups of workers and raise awareness about safer chemical alternatives and risk reduction.
- Diesel exhaust and human health — Updating similar APHA policy adopted in 1999, encourages relevant federal, state and local agencies to raise public awareness on the human health dangers of diesel exhaust exposure and engage local stakeholders in lowering diesel emissions as well as work-related exposures. Calls on officials to go beyond the typical means of communication and organize awareness-raising events in partnership with state and local APHA chapters, occupational safety and health groups, environmental organizations, labor unions and industry councils. Also urges advocacy in support of stronger diesel emissions regulations and the development of cleaner, renewable transportation technologies.
- Protecting temporary workers — Citing the rapid growth of the temporary work sector, calls on Congress to reform current laws to provide labor rights to temporary workers, including the right to union representation and the ability to negotiate for equal workplace rights. Calls for expanding research on the health impacts of temporary work arrangements and urges the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to research injury rates among workers hired by temporary staffing agencies. Also urges states to adopt a number of rules regarding the temporary workforce, including requiring agreements between staffing agencies and host employers that spell out worker health and safety responsibilities.
- Late Breaker: Strengthening Ebola response and protection — Noting gaps in readiness to protect the U.S. population during recent cases of Ebola Virus Disease and the need to prepare for future disease outbreaks, calls on federal, state and local officials to restore adequate funding for preparedness for all natural and man-made infectious disease threats. Urges policymakers to invest in worker preparedness, training and protective equipment. Calls on the White House and Congress to direct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to fast-track standards and guidelines addressing the health care sector and other industries. Also calls on OSHA to enforce whistleblower protections and civil liberties for workers who raise concerns about work-related infectious disease risks.
The full policy statements and recommended action steps will be released in early 2015.
The OHS Section also honored four individuals for their leadership to improve working conditions in the US and abroad. Linda Delp, PhD, MPH received the Alice Hamilton Award for her life-long contribution to improving the lives of working people. Dr. Delp was recognized for her ability to forge alliances between community groups and labor organizations, and a passion for worker empowerment, social justice and student mentoring.
Dan Neal received the Lorin Kerr Award for his outstanding efforts to improve the lives of workers. Mr. Neal, a journalist by training and with the Equality State Policy Center, has been at the forefront of efforts in Wyoming to spotlight the toll of work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths. The power and influence of oil and gas interests—the boom industries in the state—create special challenges to worker safety policy improvements. In 2014, as part of Worker Memorial Week commemorations, Mr. Neal was the lead author of a state-wide report featuring stories on the impact on families when their loved ones are killed on the job.
Terry Davidek received the Tony Mazzocchi Award to recognize his grassroots activism in the fight for workers’ health and safety rights. Mr. Davidek is a member of United Steelworkers Local 1196 (Brackenridge, PA) and the health, safety and environment (HSE) coordinator for all ATI-Allegheny Ludlum Corp. facilities across the US. Mr. Davidek was instrumental in pressing the company to establish a full-time, hourly H&S coordinator which is now widespread throughout the company. Following the death of a USW member at an in-plant railroad, Davidek ensured the investigation focused on the hazards, not the far-too-prevalent blame the worker approach fatality investigations. Mike Wright, USW director of HSE, noted that Davidek’s work “continues the legacy of Tony Mazzocchi.”
Kalpona Akter received the OHS Section’s International Award for her outstanding achievement exposing the harsh and deadly working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry. At age 12, Ms. Akter began working in a garment factory. She was only 15 years old when she led her first strike to demand safe and respectful work, and was promptly fired and blackballed. Ms. Akter established in 2001 the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS). Her criticism of the industry and her government has landed her in jail. But Akter’s truth telling is confirmed time and again when garment factory fires and disasters kill workers. BCWS was on the forefront of massive protests by garment workers following the April 2013 Rana Plaza sweatshop collapse that killed 1,134 workers.
The OHS Section’s annual meeting at APHA brings together the best of public health: solid research, community-based methods, policy and politics, research-to-action, social justice and solidarity.