April 28, 2011 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

“Pray for the dead. Fight like hell for the living” was the rallying cry of community organizer Mother Jones (a.k.a. Mary Harris Jones, 1837-1930) to fire up workers as they demanded better working conditions and labor rights. The motto still resonates today, especially this week when workers, human rights, and public health advocates commemorate International Worker Memorial Day. Hazards magazine offers a list of events scheduled across the globe and the AFL-CIO provides a list of activities here in the U.S., as does the victims’ support group United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities (USMWF).

The AFL-CIO also released its “Death on the Job” report, one of the best annual compendiums of U.S. worker health and safety statistics. Along with the data tables, the preface to the report offers the AFL-CIO’s assessment of the state of U.S. worker health and safety. Commentaries about the report appear here, here, and here. The Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) also released their annual “Dying for Work” report. It notes:

“In 2010, fines assessed by the OSHA to Massachusetts employers …for violations that resulted in the death of a worker averaged a mere $5,854” a significant drop from the 2009 average of $13,306. Of the seven closed OSHA investigations of worker fatality cases in 2010, penalties assessed in all cases totaled less than $10,000.

MassCOSH also reminds us that public sector workers in the State are outside of federal OSHA’s jurisdiction, and and Massachusetts is not one of the states that has created an office to address public-sector worker safety. In total, about 8 milion state and local employees nationwide—-police, teachers, sanitation workers, prison guards—-are not covered by the OSH Act. The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health is also marking Worker Memorial Day 2011 by releasing a short (47-second) video spot. It features Vincente Rodriguez, 20, who was killed on the job in May 2009 while working at the MGM Grande casino in Las Vegas.

This Worker Memorial Day, I want to offer a special remembrance to Dan L. Middaugh, 62, who died in November 2010 from complications from several illnesses including asbestosis. He lived most of his adult life in Alaska. My friend and colleague Mark Catlin, who gives us the amazing YouTube collection of workplace and environmental health and safety film clips, shared the following memories of Dan:

Dan Middaugh was a former director and president of the board of the Alaska Health Project. He was involved with the NIEHS Worker Training and Education Program, first through the Alice Hamilton Consortium and most recently with the Labor Occupational Safety and Health (LOSH)-led consortium on the west coast.

Middaugh and I worked together for the Alaska Health Project from 1984-1991. He was president of the board at the time, and was a strong advocate for occupational and environmental health and safety. He was a long time journeyman with Local 97 of the Heat & Frost Insulators & Asbestos Workers Union and had been the Local’s training coordinator in the early 1980s. Dan developed and ran the early asbestos abatement training classes for members of his Local, which emphasized hands-on practical training. His methods became the model for the Alaska State Asbestos Certification Program; this was several years before the now well-known Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) requirements were put in place.

Catlin goes on:

Dan and I served together for 18 months, beginning in 1987, on a special Alaska Department of Labor Asbestos Regulation Workgroup constituted by the Commissioner of Labor. Our task was to develop a better regulation than Federal OSHA’s. At one meeting we were listening to presentations by industry scientist. Under Dan’s questioning, one of the scientist admitted that he would not want to be exposed to asbestos at the OSHA PEL (then 0.2 fibers per cubic centimeter of air) but at the lowest possible level, preferably zero. The scientist’s frank response swung the opinion of the previous undecided members of the committee to the side of very strigent protections for asbestos-exposed workers.

Catlin explained that with Dan’s vision and leadership, the Alaska Health Project developed occupational and environmental programs for Alaskan unions, workers and communities (including remote native communities), including asbestos and hazardous materials training. They also designed curriculum for high school students called the “Job Hazard Recognition Program.”

Dan came to Alaska in the late 1960s, became a journeyman insulator, and worked on the Alaskan Pipeline construction in the mid 1970s. He was the co-author (with fellow insulator Jimmy Singree) of the handbook “Methods and Layouts for the Insulator,” known in Alaska as the “Insulation Bible.”

Dan left behind two grown daughters and good friends who appreciated his passion for labor and workplace safety and health and, for fishing for Alaska salmon. Dan knew that the worst day of fishing was always better than the best day of working. I recall many wonderful times drinking Jack Daniels with Dan and other friends during the long winter evenings in Anchorage – so let’s raise a glass to Dan to honor his passing.

Everyday in the U.S., an average of 13 workers die on-the-job from acute traumatic injuries. Hundreds of others are injured or suffer from work-related illnesses each and every day. Across the globe, the number is about 6,000 workers dying everyday from fatal work-related injuries.

Not too long ago, we used to say it was 16 workers per day in the U.S. it makes me wonder whether the number has dropped to 13 because of our economic recession, because the work environment is less hazardous, or if our reliance on goods manufactured overseas has just shipped the job hazards abroad too, along with the resulting work-related deaths and disease.

Catlin thinks Dan Middaugh would be angry if he knew, for example, that the Canadian asbestos industry, in partnership with the Quebec government, continues to export asbestos (here, here.):

He’s seen and lived through this very thing—asbestos products he installed in Alaska in the 1970s being “dumped” there by asbestos manufacturers. The lower 48 [States’] markets dried up when the dangers of asbestos became more publicly and widely known, due to the work of Dr. Irving Selikoff (1925-1992) and others. Alaska experienced a major construction boom in the 1970s with the building of the Alaska pipeline and the influx of oil wealth. Dan used to joke about having been paid to both install insulation, and later paid to remove it from the same facility.

Dan Middaugh died from complications from several chronic diseases including asbestosis. His death, like all the thousands of others from occupational diseases, are not part of the 13 deaths or 16 deaths per day phrase used here in the US. International Worker Memorial Day commemorates the struggle for safe and healthy working conditions for all people, and is a tribute to workers who paid with their lives and health to create wealth for a small minority at top of our global economic pyramid.

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