By David Michaels
Lifelines Online, the safety and health publication of the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America, is publicizing some important videos – dealing with the history of occupational health and safety in the U.S., industrial hygiene pioneer Alice Hamilton, and the lung disease silicosis – that are now available for free online viewing. I’ve added recommendations of videos on a pesticide that sterilizes workers and on asbestos that are also well worth viewing and sharing, particularly if you’re an educator or leader of a group that deals with occupational health.
Stop Silicosis, 1938 (12 minutes). In the aftermath of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel tragedy, the US Department of Labor released this film aimed at preventing the occupational disease of silicosis. For 100 years prior to this tragedy, employers had known that overexposure to silica dust caused this deadly lung disease, but many ignored workplace dust control methods. The current OSHA exposure limit for silica dust is based on science from the mid 1960s, and hundreds of workers each year still develop this preventable lung disease. As we’ve written here, silica-exposed workers are still breathlessly awaiting a new OSHA standard, promised by the agency several years ago.
Can’t Take No More, 1979 (27 minutes). Studs Terkel narrates this fast-paced history of occupational health and safety in the U.S. from the Industrial Revolution to the 1970s, which OSHA produced and distributed in 1980. Rare archival footage and photos illustrate the problems behind dramatic tragedies as well as the daily dangers that put workers at risk for long-term health problems. Lifelines provides an interesting historical note about the film:
In 1981, the newly-elected Reagan Administration’s OSHA recalled the film and destroyed most copies. Organizations receiving OSHA training grants were threatened with a loss of funding if they showed this film to workers. Rare archival footage and photos touch on some of the major issues responsible for dramatic tragedies as well as on the day-to-day dangers that cause long-term health problems. It also connects the health and safety movement with the civil rights and environmental movements.
Alice Hamilton, 1988 (12 minutes). This NIOSH video honors Alice Hamilton, M.D., “the first American physician to devote her life to the practice of industrial medicine.” Beginning with investigations of lead poisoning among enamellers of bathtubs, she pioneered occupational epidemiology and industrial hygiene in the United States. Her scientifically persuasive findings caused sweeping reforms, both voluntary and regulatory, to reduce occupational exposure to lead. In 1919, Dr. Hamilton became Harvard’s first woman faculty member when she was appointed assistant professor of industrial medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Song of the Canary, 1978 (58 minutes, available for purchase from New Day films). This is a very short clip from the pioneering documentary that tells the story of 60 workers at a chemical production plant in California who were heavily exposed to the pesticide DBCP (1,2-dibromo-3-chloropropane) in 1977 and were found to be sterile. I learned the details of the story from a young filmmaker, Josh Hanig, a close friend who died of pancreatic cancer a few years ago. Josh set out to make a documentary about the issues faced by workers employed in a chemical factory. Several of the workers at the Occidental Chemical factory in the San Francisco Bay area revealed to Josh what they had never been comfortable talking about with their friends—that they had been unable to conceive a baby. Struck by the “coincidence,” Josh paid for sperm tests in this informal cohort and found that all seven of the men tested had sperm counts of virtually zero. The men had never been told of the study by Dow which 16 years earlier had found “testicular atrophy” in lab rats after exposure to DBCP. OSHA soon issued an emergency temporary standard of 10 parts per billion, and the EPA later banned the chemical from use in the US.
Libby, Montana: An Asbestos Legacy, 2007 (12 minutes). Processed vermiculite from the WR Grace Libby MT Mine contained tremolite, a form of asbestos, that has caused hundreds of cases of asbestos-related disease among workers and local residents in this small mountain town. EPA instituted a decontamination program for the town and the contaminated residences. Ongoing studies are trying to determine where the Libby vermiculite was sold across the US. For more information about asbestos and the proposal to ban its use in the US, go to Senator Patty Murray’s website http://murray.senate.gov/photos/display.cfm?id=219619, and click on the video link (this one’s free).
The Libby video and nearly 100 others dealing with environmental and occupational health issues are available for order from Environmental Response Television.
If you’ve been viewing one of films on Google Video, you can click on the “from user” link (below the film description in the right-hand column of the viewing page) to find similar ones.
David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.