Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Learning from the lessons of history

Just this past weekend, six workers were killed in a grain elevator explosion in Atchison, Kansas. Four of them were younger than 25 years old. It was a sad reminder of why we need strong workplace health and safety standards, said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, during today’s Closing General Session, which focused on “The case for workplace health and safety: 100 years after the Triangle Fire.”

Hundreds of the 13,000 attendees at this year’s Annual Meeting packed into a convention center room to hear about the progress we’ve made so far and the very real — and sometimes successful — attempts to roll back workplace safety standards happening today. But let’s start with the inspiration for this year’s closing session and the deadliest industrial disaster in New York City’s history: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911.

One hundred years ago, 146 people died — 125 of them young women — when a fire broke out at the garment factory, which was located on the eighth, ninth and 10th floors of a building. The workers ran toward the exit, but it was locked. Many workers jumped from the windows of the factory; some so that their parents would have something to bury. When police found the women’s bodies, they noticed their nails had torn off, as they had tried to claw their way out. During their funerals, 100,000 workers marched through the streets demanding change. The outrage eventually led to sweeping reforms, such as the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, minimum wage requirements and the elimination of sweatshops.

Fast forward to today and there’s much to celebrate, Michaels told attendees. Since the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the rate of fatal workplace injuries has declined dramatically. The agency conducts about 40,000 inspections a year and offers a variety of health promotion tools and campaigns, such as a smartphone app in English and Spanish that tells workers how to work safely in dangerous temperatures.

Unfortunately, it’s not all good news, Michaels noted. Twelve workers die in the United States every day from workplace injuries and as many as 50,000 workers die from illnesses in which workplace exposures were a contributing factor. And the current anti-regulatory political climate is hardly a friendly place for making more inroads, especially when the popular mantra is that regulations are job killers. Of course, the data shows otherwise, as safe workplaces promote productivity and decrease time away from the job.

“OSHA standards don’t kill jobs; they stop jobs from killing workers,” Michaels said to loud applause.

Outside our borders, shameful working standards are making it even harder to maintain current U.S. standards and continue moving forward. That’s why we all have to join forces — worldwide — for workers’ rights and safety, said closing session speaker Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers. Before beginning his address, Gerard showed film footage similar to that of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Except this footage happened just last year in a garment factory in Bangladesh, where a fire broke out and the exits were locked. Dozens were killed or injured; again, some jumped to their deaths. The factory produced popular brand-name clothing sold here in the United States; its workers paid hardly enough to live on. That’s why there’s a responsibility on all of us to internationalize the workplace standards we enjoy here at home, Gerard said, noting that we can’t allow “globalization and rotten trade deals to cause health and safety regression anywhere in the world.”

“If we don’t do it, our kids and our grandkids will have a lesser quality of life,” Gerard said. “Worst of all, we’ll be allowing workers in other countries to get killed while we stand silent.”

Worker safety is an issue “we need collective action on,” said session speaker Darryl Alexander, director of health and safety for the American Federation of Teachers. Currently, Alexander said, we’re seeing working conditions deteriorating like never before — today, workers are being sent the message that “hazards and exposures…are just part of the job.” In fact, many of today’s workplace injuries simply go unidentified. But with your help, she urged session attendees, we can make a difference.

“From a public health perspective, (work is) probably the most important social determinant for health that there is,” Alexander said.

Well, dear readers, it’s been another energizing APHA Annual Meeting — this blogger feels refreshed and ready to speak up in support of public health. As new APHA President Mel Shipp said at the closing session: “This coming year will be important — no, critical — for public health.”

See you next year at APHA’s 140th Annual Meeting in San Francisco, where the theme will be “Prevention and Wellness Across the Lifespan.” And don’t forget about APHA’s 2012 Midyear Meeting in Charlotte, N.C., which has a theme of “The New Public Health: Rewiring for the future.”

— K.K

Above, from left to right, Closing General Session speakers David Michaels, Leo Gerard, outgoing APHA President Linda Rae Murray and Darryl Alexander. Photo courtesy Jim Ezell/EZ Event Photography

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