By Eula Bingham 

It was 30 years ago this month that I was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health.  I vividly remember my visits to Capitol Hill and the questions of lawmakers regarding my vision for worker health and safety.  Perhaps it was because I had been a teacher for 20 years; or had accompanied members of the United Auto Workers to Sweden to witness first-hand a model worker training program; or perhaps it was the influence of Selikoff, Mazzocchi and Samuels (who all knew the value of providing workers with information) that caused me to respond: ”Worker education is my highest priority.”

At the time, OSHA spent about $700,000 on worker safety and health education programs.  Then, Congressman Obey’s office asked if $2 million would help me get started.  “Oh yes,” I said, “but I’ll ask for more in next year’s budget.”  By the end of that year, we had launched “New Directions,” a grant program for worker training.  When I left OSHA in early 1981, we had collaborated with the National Cancer Institute to provide over $20 million in worker training funds, with community organizations, (such as COSH groups and the Lung Association) industry associations, and universities providing training to workers on safety and health topics. 

Now, 30 years later, there is funding for workers doing Superfund-related activities, through the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), but worker training grants under OSHA have diminished year after year.  This month, OSHA wants to eliminate the last vestige of grassroots worker safety education—the Susan Harwood Grant Program.

Who educates the immigrants (legal or not)? Who educates health care workers and landscapers?  Who educates farmworkers about pesticides?  These workers do not qualify for the Superfund-related training.  Who cares anymore?

Eula Bingham, PhD is Professor of Environmental Health at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.  She served as the University’s Vice President and Dean for Graduate Studies and Research from 1982-1990, and the Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA from 1977-1981.