July 18, 2014 Kim Krisberg 2Comment

When Bethany Boggess first debuted her online mapping project, she didn’t expect it to attract so much attention. But within just six months of its launch, people from all over the world are sending in reports and helping her build a dynamic picture of the lives and deaths of workers.

The project is called the Global Worker Watch and it’s quite literally a living map of worker fatalities and catastrophes from around the globe. When you go to the site, you’ll see a world map speckled with blue dots, each representing a reported occupational death, illness or disaster. Here are just a few I randomly clicked on: In March in Pakistan, four workers died and 18 were injured when a gas cylinder exploded at a gas company. Also in March in Gujarat, India, two workers died of silicosis, an occupational disease caused by the inhalation of silica dust. Three workers have died in the mines of Coahuila, Mexico, since January. In February, a worker at an Iron County mine site in Utah died after getting trapped on a conveyer belt. Just a few days ago, a worker in the United Kingdom died after falling from an electricity tower. And in May, police in Cambodia opened fire during a labor protest, killing four people.

“Obviously, I’m only capturing the tip of the iceberg,” said Boggess, a 26-year-old epidemiology student at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Austin. “But if I’m just one person and I can do this in six months…then with more and more people contributing, we can get a much more complete and accurate picture (of worker deaths and injuries).”

The idea for Global Worker Watch grew out of Boggess’ experience investigating the global supply chain in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 that killed more than 1,000 people and injured thousands more. The building housed a number of garment factories and nearly all those who died in the collapse were garment workers. In the wake of the disaster, Boggess began working with data analysts in the United Kingdom to figure out which U.S. and U.K. companies sourced their products from factories in Bangladesh. In particular, Boggess analyzed several million import and export records from Wal-Mart and it piqued her interest in working with unusual data sets and in presenting data in visually appealing mediums. Shortly after the Bangladesh project, she partnered with an Austin-based worker center, Workers Defense Project, to map incidents of wage theft and worker injury using weekly reports from OSHA. Both experiences as well as the skills she’s gained as an amateur computer programmer and hacker eventually led her to build Global Worker Watch and its interactive maps.

Here’s how it works. Boggess finds data for the maps from three main sources: news sources using Google Alerts, government data (“Kind of a pain and not always useful,” she tells me), and people from all around the world who submit stories and data directly to Boggess through the website. Boggess is fluent in Spanish and Italian and can read and understand French, so she’s able to map stories and data arriving in those languages. For right now, language is definitely a hurdle in creating more complete and accurate maps, she said. But she hopes that as more people hear about the project and want to participate, it’ll become less of a barrier.

When a worker incident comes in, Boggess typically gets it on the map within a week, through sometimes it’s within hours. Sometimes, the story behind the dot on the map is somewhat vague — with little known about the workers involved or even the name of the workplace — while others are much more detailed, listing the worker’s name, age, gender, cause of death and the name of the company where he or she worked. Boggess told me that about 10 percent to 15 percent of the mapped data come directly from people contacting her with reports of worker deaths. The Global Worker Watch site also offers visitors its data in the raw as well as a gallery of recent and historical photos of workers from around the world.

“I wanted to put a face to this,” she said of the photo gallery. “The maps are nice but there’s no human face to them.”

Boggess said she doesn’t know of other projects attempting to map worker deaths worldwide. However, the idea of using mapping to more easily illustrate a public health problem isn’t entirely new. For instance, HealthMap mines the Internet to map disease outbreaks and emerging public health threats and Google Flu Trends does the same with flu activity. (We’ve written about HealthMap here.) In the worker safety arena, CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training launched its Fatality Map in 2011 and may have been the first to use the mapping technique in an occupational health and safety application.

Fatality Map, which is part of the center’s falls prevention campaign, maps overall construction fatalities and fatal construction falls in the United States. Data for the maps are collected from ongoing OSHA investigations and supplemented with media reports, said Gavin West, a research analyst at the center, which grew out of a series of cooperative agreements with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and is dedicated to generating research and training resources to promote safe working conditions for construction workers. Each pinpoint on the Fatality Map tells the story of a construction fatality. For example, in April 2013, two workers in Hendersonville, Tennessee, died after being pinned underneath a section of a concrete block wall that collapsed during construction of a new building. Fatality Map data are collected in real time, and the online maps are updated quarterly.

West told me that in 2011, the mapping project was able to capture 78 percent of official construction-related fatalities and 69 percent of fatal fall numbers when compared to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2012, the maps captured 74 percent of overall fatalities and 68 percent of falls. West said that while Fatality Map isn’t the best tool for making state-based comparisons, it can show — “very plainly” — where more construction workers are dying and falling on the job.

“(The maps) help bring life to the data instead of just looking at the numbers,” West told me. “The visual aspect and the ability to interact help draw some attention to the problem.”

Fatality Map also lets visitors access its raw data so that people can create even more specific profiles of construction-related deaths. For example, Chris Trahan, the center’s deputy director, told me that the open data was recently used to research fall-related fatalities among industrial painters in California. Trahan said in addition to raising awareness about construction worker deaths, Fatality Map is also a useful training tool. She said she’s heard from safety trainers who use the maps to drive home lessons and reinforce safety messages — “it’s become another tool in their toolbox.”

“We hope we can put a face to the numbers,” Trahan said.

Back in Austin, Boggess said most of the responses to Global Worker Watch have been positive. She said she’s received a particularly excited response from corporate transparency activists, such as United Students Against Sweatshops. The experience is also providing some fascinating insights and anecdotes.

For instance, she said that “Spain is incredible, they report everything — every time a worker gets a scrape, it’s reported.” Interestingly, she said she often learns about a U.S.-based incident involving an immigrant worker in news reports from the worker’s native country before reading about it in an American media outlet. Boggess noted that the lack of data also tells a compelling story. One quick glimpse at Global Worker Watch and you’ll notice hardly any blue pinpoints in the entire African continent. Partially that’s because of the language barriers that Boggess hopes to overcome as more people take part; but it’s also because of insufficient workplace oversight.

Boggess has received some criticism about the accuracy of Global Worker Watch. But she believes that the more open her site is the more likely people will help verify stories of worker conditions. And once you start clicking on the little blue dots and reading about workers dying from suffocation, workplace violence, chemical exposure, drowning, building collapse — you just can’t stop, which seems to be exactly the point.

“I hope the map will help consumers and the public realize just how important it is for workers to be treated with some basic human rights,” Boggess said. “I hope I can visually show how big the issue is and how it shouldn’t be ignored.”

See the maps for yourself at Global Worker Watch. And view the Center for Construction Research and Training’s Fatality Map here.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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