On Saturday, Firedoglake hosted an online discussion on David Michaels’ Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health – and David was lucky to have the chat hosted by Jordan Barab, whose wonderful Confined Space blog provided so much inspiration for The Pump Handle. In his introduction, Jordan not only did a terrific job summarizing the lessons contained in the book, but added some telling details from his own decades of experience promoting workplace health and safety. Here he is describing the demise of the long-awaited OSHA ergonomics standard:

I first realized the power — and evil — of the dreaded practitioners of “manufactured doubt” when I was working at OSHA in the late 1990’s on the ergonomics standard. That was the regulation that was going to address the plague of disabling back injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and other musculoskeletal disorders that at that time – and still today – make up the most common source of injury among American workers.

In case the vision of a worker making 20,000 knife cuts a day in a chicken processing plant, or lifting 250 pound slippery patients all day long didn’t convince you that back, shoulder and wrist injuries were work-related, there were enough scientific studies to choke a horse. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health put out an analysis of the data in a book big enough to put the New York City telephone book to shame.

After 10 years of fighting industry opposition and a hostile Congress, the standard was issued in late 2000. Nevertheless, in one of the first actions of the Bush administration, the Republican Congress and George Bush repealed the standard. The main argument used by the Republicans and industry? Ergonomics is junk science, and not enough sound science. “We don’t know the exact amount of physical stress needed to cause carpal tunnel syndrome,” industry-paid researchers argued. “We don’t know exactly how much weight a worker can lift to cripple her back.”

Lots of thoughtful and well-informed commenters also showed up to cite other examples of corporations manufacturing doubt and to discuss how to overcome the problem. Throughout the discussion, several people emphasized the roles that journalists, politicians, and universities play in allowing the manufacture of doubt to continue, and David and Jordan were able to offer some examples of how these particular groups can be spurred to improve. Here’s David’s response to a question on academic research:

The academic community is coming around to the idea that secret research can threaten science. During the late 1990s there was a series of alarming instances in which corporations blocked the publication of research (that they had paid for) that was detrimental to the companies but important for protecting the public’s health. Outraged, the editors of thirteen of the world’s leading biomedical journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, declared in 2001 that they will publish only studies done under contracts in which the investigators are ‘‘free of commercial interest.’’ The journals no longer accept papers about studies performed under contracts that allowed the sponsor to control the results. In a joint statement, the editors asserted that contractual arrangements that allow sponsor control of publication ‘‘not only erode the fabric of intellectual inquiry that has fostered so much high-quality clinical research, but also make medical journals party to potential misrepresentation, since the published manuscript may not reveal the extent to which the authors were powerless to control the conduct of a study that bears their names.

So things are changing – the journals are ahead of government agencies, who have no limitation on the science they will accept for consideration.

Several commenters questioned what individuals can do about these deep-seated problems. Jordan had a pithy response to this, informed by his experience with the ergonomics standard:

When the attempt to repeal the ergonomics standard began I expected workers of the world (or at least the nation) to rise up in righteous anger to smite any politician who voted against it. That didn’t come to pass. Other than those directly affected, people — even labor union members — weren’t educated enough to act fast enough (a matter of days) to lobby Congress. That was part of the reason I started Confined Space — to “pre-educate” people.

But all of us need to educate the journalists in our neighborhood — even if we non-scientists don’t have all the necessary information, we need to hook them up with people like David.

And for God’s sake, nag your Congressmen and Senators unmercifully. They have to know that people are paying attention AND they’re pissed off.

And here’s Jordan’s response to a question on keeping hope alive:

How do we “keep hope alive and manage frustration over the years and decades when you know how toxic a substance is, yet find industry can lie and buy their way into keeping the substance on the market?”

Good question. I’ve been working in Washington now for over 30 years (ugh!), although a good part of that time has been spent traveling and talking to workers about their health and safety concerns. I just focus on two things: keeping things from getting any worse (which is hard enough), and trying to educate people in hopes that we can take a few small steps forward when the opportunity arises.

And speaking of the opportunity, I’ve been accused of taking (unfair?) advantage of workplace catastrophes and exploiting tragedy to push my “agenda” (which would be worker protections.) To that I say “Damn straight!” We need to be armed with information like that in David’s book and anything else we can so that when some catastrophe happens that reaches the front pages and the 6:00 news, we’re ready with an action plan — media, legislative, electoral, whatever… We need to use those opportunities, and yes, even the dead bodies. I’m sure those who have died in workplace tragedies would be happy to have their deaths used in a struggle to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.

You can read the full transcript of the discussion here, and learn more about Doubt is Their Product here.

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