December 21, 2015 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

“People want to give us clothes, and that is nice, but your books give us knowledge which is true power.” Those are the sentiments of Samuel Watulatsu about Hesperian’s publications on community health and prevention. He’s the founder of the Foundation for Development of Needy Communities in Mbale, Uganda. Watulatsu’s endorsement appears on a new Hesperian publication: Workers’ Guide to Health and Safety.

The Workers’ Guide to Health and Safety is grounded on the principle that providing practical and comprehensive information to a community can persuade them to take action on issues affecting their health. The community could be a group of mothers, a group of workers, or residents of a town. Hesperian’s most famous book is Where There is No Doctor: a Village Healthcare Handbook. It was published in 1973 as Donde No Hay Doctor and was the Hesperian Foundation’s first publication. Today, their resources have been translated into 80 languages and publicly available because of their open copyright policy.

I’ve used Hesperian’s Community Guide to Environmental Health in my teaching.  (The chapter on toilets—-what people want from toilets, including the needs of children and women—was a favorite among undergrads.)  Like it, the Workers’ Guide to Health and Safety emphasizes using collective knowledge and action for change.

Sketches like this one enhance the book:

“Who designed the factories and the jobs,” Workers’ Guide to Health and Safety, p. 4.

A typical occupational safety and health textbook will present information on workplace hazards (e.g., noise and fire hazards) and list government regulations that might apply. This guide instead offers practical tips that in most cases, will frankly be more useful to workers. Like this one:

“How to tell if noise is too loud,” p. 225

And the guide’s author provide sensible options that workers could present to a boss to fix a hazard. For example, excessive noise might be addressed by having someone oil the machine or check to see if a part is wearing out.

The theme woven throughout the guide is this:

“Someone planned the factory you work in and decided what machines, chemicals, tools, and materials you combine in the products you make. Your boss may have made these decisions, or maybe it was the factor owner, or the company that buys your products. These same people can also decide to make jobs and workplaces less harmful, more fair, and more successful—especially be asking the workers to share their knowledge and ideas about how to do it.”

The guide focuses on the work environments in electronics, garment, and shoe factories, covering hazards such as ergonomics, chemicals, machinery, and temperature extremes. But information about common hazards, ways to control them, and ideas for workers to act collectively to improve working conditions are largely universal. I can imagine a Workers’ Guide to Health and Safety being used just as easily at the Fe y Justicia Worker Center in Houston, TX, as at the Bangladesh Worker Center in Dhaka. Translations of the guides into Bangla, Spanish, and Vietnamese have begun.

Instead of buying a holiday gift for someone who has everything, consider a donation to Hesperian. Your support will allow them to continue writing and distributing their health-promoting books to communities across the globe.


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