The road toward eliminating the threat of asbestos has been long, slow-moving, incredibly frustrating and littered with significant hurdles. Thankfully, advocates like Linda Reinstein, who lost her husband to asbestos-related disease in 2003, refuse to get discouraged.
As co-founder and CEO of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), Reinstein works to unite those who’ve been personally impacted by asbestos-related illness, raise awareness about the continuing threat of asbestos, and advocate for policies that reduce exposures among workers, their families and the public. Ultimately, Reinstein and her fellow advocates hope to ban asbestos in the U.S., where about 10,000 people die every year from asbestos-related illness, much of it stemming from exposures on the job.
However, addressing the complexities of asbestos exposure, illness, policy and enforcement is an incredibly difficult task and one that requires long-term advocacy and vigilance. In addition, with so many ongoing and emerging issues currently on the worker rights docket — from the fight for a living wage to the new threats posed by the so-called gig economy — an old occupational danger such as asbestos may not always get the attention it deserves. In response, Reinstein has been working to more fully engage younger occupational health and safety professionals, with the hope that they’ll carry the anti-asbestos movement into the future.
“Young occupational health and safety professionals are our future and for me, as a mesothelioma widow, I want to bring this information to the next generation,” Reinstein told me. “We’re all getting older …I want someone to pass the baton to. We have to nurture and grow young professionals to help protect Americans from the next wave of asbestos disease.”
One way Reinstein is doing that is through ADAO’s Annual International Asbestos Awareness Conference, which wrapped up its 12th gathering in Washington, D.C., in April. During the early years of the conference, she said few young professionals attended — “we just didn’t have the name or the notoriety,” she added. Since then, she’s honed the conference’s offerings to better meet the needs of young professionals and began offering scholarships to help young people attend. During the one-day conference, young attendees get to hear from dozens of experts as well as from those living with asbestos-related illness and their families.
“Asbestos really is under the radar,” Reinstein said, adding that much of the public thinks asbestos is already banned in the U.S. “So for younger professionals, the conference can be an amazing experience.”
The Pump Handle decided to catch up with two of the young professionals who attended April’s ADAO conference. The first is Fernando Tapia, 41, a labor rights, safety and health trainer with the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, who’s been working in the occupational health and safety field for about seven years. We also spoke with Mary Kathryn Fletcher, 24, a health and safety fellow with the AFL-CIO. We asked them about their ADAO conference experience, how issues of asbestos and occupational chemical exposures fit into their work, and why unions are good for public health. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversations.
The Pump Handle: As a young occupational health and safety professional, what made you attend this year’s International Asbestos Awareness Conference? What were some of your most compelling, surprising or informative experiences at the conference?
Fernando Tapia: I was invited by a [colleague] at SEIU. …In general, I thought it was a good way to supplement what I teach and how I teach it. It really surprised me how long asbestos has been around and how long it’s been used in industry. …The most compelling part of the conference were the stories from the loved ones who suffered through the declining health of their family members. And to the credit of the organizers of the conference, they did a great job bringing doctors, activists, union reps and academics together for a common cause and making it work. One had to be there for the other to help it all come together and make sense. It was all presented with a sense of urgency, but also that it’s been and will be a long fight.
Mary Kathryn Fletcher: I attended because my colleagues at AFL-CIO had told me some wonderful things about ADAO and the work that [Reinstein] does. So when I heard about the opportunity to attend, I thought it would be a great learning and networking experience and it really was. But beyond that it was a really special conference — unlike any other one I’d been to because of the people invited. Especially as a young person, a lot of times we tend to see asbestos as something that isn’t an issue anymore — as this older occupational health issue that we don’t have to address anymore. But we definitely do and [Reinstein] did a great job of bringing that to the forefront, especially in regard to hearing from the victims.
PH: How much did you know about asbestos in the workplace before the conference? And how do you hope to use the information you gained in your day-to-day work?
FT: I knew it was a slow killer — that’s how I pictured it in my head — and I thought that the lungs were the only organs affected by it. Because of the conference, I learned it causes cancer in other parts of body, that early detection helps reduce the need for surgery, and that surgery can be an effective treatment as well. I was also able to meet new go-to people and experts in the field.
[Regarding how he’s used information from the conference] I was at a potential organizing site in the Midwest and was invited to meet with a worker who was nonunion and was working in a warehouse where he believed there were chips on the floor and insulation in the ceiling that he thought were asbestos. I remember talking to him and asking him where it was, and he said it’s all over. So we felt it was urgent to confirm this and do something about it. We were able to get a sample of chips from the wall and ceiling. …I got in touch with one of the professors that I met [at the ADAO conference] and he put me in touch with a consultant and an asbestos lab. [As of late May] we are on stand-by and as soon as the union rep is ready to use the information, we’ll go ahead and process the sample and use it in the campaign going forward.
I’m someone who really believes in making the connections. I really feel if I hadn’t gone to the conference, I would’ve been scrambling. These resources are real and effective, so the question is how do we continue this work together.
MKF: I really didn’t know that much besides the basics. I did think a little bit of it as an older issue. I knew it was big in construction, I knew it was an issue for public school employees working in older buildings. But I didn’t really think about it.
But of the things I learned [at the conference], the one thing that really spoke to me was when they talked about preventing exposure to asbestos and also curing asbestos-related disease. With asbestos, it’s one of those diseases that once you get it, you’re screwed — that’s how I thought about it. But in seeing survivors and hearing from them and hearing from people who are working on a cure, it’s a reminder to think about that in all the work we do. How do we prevent this and how do we take care of people already exposed?
Being at AFL-CIO and working on issues on a national level, it can be easy to feel removed from workers who are actually being exposed. But the conference did a really good job at saying these are the people, these are their faces, these are their families. Getting to meet the families was really impactful and something I won’t ever forget and will carry throughout my work.
PH: Like many occupational illnesses, the harmful effects of asbestos exposure can take years to manifest. It’s one of those workplace hazards that advocates often describe as a slow-moving catastrophe. Do the workers you serve encounter asbestos risks or similar workplace chemical hazards? If so, what kinds of exposure risks do they encounter? And what are the big challenges to preventing those exposures?
FT: I was able to visit a pork plant that is about 100 years old as part of the pre-work before we went in to train workers. At some point, we saw signs that there was asbestos there, but [were told] that it was under control. But that stayed in our heads. …How do they know there isn’t an exposure happening somewhere in the building? Should we be concerned as a union with the fact that so many of these meat processing plants are so old? One of the union reps that was there said that without a doubt, there’s asbestos there. So there definitely needs to be a plan around it if you hope to protect workers in a real way.
A major challenge [in protecting these workers from harmful chemical exposures] is that there are chemicals used in the production process that are unregulated. For example, there are chemicals that are used for sterilization of the food, but there isn’t a regulation through OSHA. And workers are afraid of retaliation — even when a worker has a union, you always find a situation in which the company discourages reporting, sends the wrong message through incentive programs or just outright abuses workers. Sometimes workers aren’t even aware of what they’re handling and how it will affect them today, tomorrow or later. …There’s a real challenge for unions to really address some of these issues and keep an eye on chemical exposures as best as possible.
MKF: Being a fellow at AFL-CIO, we represent almost any workforce you can think of, but the workforce that comes to mind regarding asbestos is construction with the demolition and renovation of buildings as well as school employees and other workers who work in older buildings. A lot of it is about awareness — workers might not realize they’re working in an environment that contains [asbestos] or how hazardous it is.
It’s not a disease of the past, there are people still impacted by this. There’s a lot of challenges, but we can make some headway and move forward on it.
PH: As you know, union membership has declined dramatically in the U.S. What does that decline mean for the health and safety of workers, especially in regard to harmful chemical exposures? What do you think union member decline means for public health in general?
FT: The decline in union membership has created a need to reorganize ourselves within the labor movement. For example, the sprouting up of worker centers and community coalitions that have come up with ways to catch workers who fall through the cracks. …I really feel that unions understand the need for these other groups to be part of the process. We can’t deny that we’re where we are because of unions, but if we want to continue that progress [these other groups] have to be a part of the process.
MKF: Unions have been foundational in winning health and safety improvements for all working people. They’re critical in pushing for better national and state health and safety standards. …The labor movement is essential in keeping [worker health and safety] grounded in science and in being the counter-voice to industry.
As far as public health as a whole, union workplaces set an industry standard of what a workplace should look like. We’ve seen this through wages, for example, in which union workplace wages set wages across an industry. This is true in safety and health as well. Unions benefit not only the immediate safety and health, but they increase wages, they provide paid time off and job security and all those are linked to greater public health. Workers who have these benefits tend to be healthier, so if we see those things decline…it’s a real concern.
PH: Reinstein said it’s critical to engage more young professionals like yourself in the movement to end asbestos-related disease. How do you see yourself carrying the anti-asbestos movement into the future?
FT: What she wants to do in passing the baton is a big responsibility — it involves understanding the seriousness of the work and its place in the labor movement. I really think [Reinstein] embodies the duty and responsibility [to fight on behalf of] those who have died from asbestos exposure.
There’s definitely a connection between all of this work, from wage theft to health theft — it’s something we can’t afford to struggle toward separately. …I do this work to honor the legacy of my parents. They’re still alive, but spent their lives as immigrant workers. I also do it for my children so they learn to fight for themselves and to fight for the rights of others.
MKF: The AFL-CIO is actually spearheading a next-generation conversation in safety and health. …We are really trying to address this issue from all angles and we need local union members brought up through the ranks, we need experts in the field, we need physicians, researchers, industrial hygienists, we need the structure of safety and health in our unions to remain and be stronger.
We know we do great work to protect working people and we don’t want that to end. …I really hope to continue the work that such great mentors in this field have started, but I also hope to bring other people into this field so we can carry this entire health and safety movement, including the anti-asbestos movement, forward.
To learn more about the movement to end asbestos-related disease, visit ADAO.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.