President-elect Obama’s news release on Sunday, Dec 21 said that VP-elect Joe Biden will be chairing a new White House Taskforce on Working Families. I was surprised, but thrilled to see that workplace safety standards are part of this group’s charge. I am not kidding. Seriously, it says, “Restoring labor standards, including workplace safety.” Very cool. I’m encouraged to know that the Obama-Biden team recognizes that what happens in the workplace does NOT stay in the workplace, but affects the heart, soul and health of working families. Whether it’s the physical toll of working two jobs, the emotional stress of wage and health insurance cut-backs, the anxiety created by uncorrected safety hazards or exposure to toxic materials, etc., etc., etc., all of these conditions follow workers home and wear down the whole household.
Families who’ve lost a loved due to a fatal on-the-job injury, or who’ve cared long-term for someone with a disabling occupational injury or disease are aware that the world of work and home are interconnected. And for some families, the two worlds crash painfully together. Think of the soldier-worker suffering from PTSD, the meatpacker who lost a limb, the welder with parkinsonism syndrome, or the mom who lost her only son in coal-truck crash. Wouldn’t it be exceptional if VP-Biden’s Taskforce examined seriously the true cost to families and society of work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths? With such numbers, it would be hard to oppose vibrant prevention programs!
The President-elect’s announcement said:
‘The Task Force will be a major initiative targeted at raising the living standards of middle-class, working families in America. The task force will be comprised of top-level administration policy makers, and in addition to regular meetings, it will conduct outreach sessions with representatives of labor, business, and the advocacy communities. …[They] will work with a wide array of federal agencies that have responsibility for key issues facing middle class and working families, and expedite administrative reforms, propose Executive orders, and develop legislative and policy proposals that can be of special importance to working families.”
The charge to the Taskforce includes:
- expand education and lifelong training opportunities
- improve work and family balance
- help to protect middle-class and working-family incomes
- restore labor standards, including workplace safety
The President-elect’s announcement of this new new White House Taskforce on Working Families is particularly timely. Just this month, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America issued a report, Work Matters for Health, describing some of the links between work, health and family life.
“Some reports have found that the total economic costs to the nation of occupational illness and injury match those of cancer and nearly those of heart disease. Healthy workers and their families are likely to incur lower medical costs and be more productive….”
The work-environment’s affect on families and communities has been illuminated also in 1-page priority briefs prepared by a variety of stakeholder and sent to the Obama-Biden Agency Review Teams. Both the National COSH’s Priorities and the APHA-OHS Section’s Priorities identified, among other things, the inadequacy in the current state workers’ compensation system and working condition disparities for African-Americans, Hispanic and immigrant workers, as cross-cutting domestic policy issues. Anyone looking at these issues will recognize quickly their connection to and influence on family life. I’m certain that representatives from these stakeholder groups would respectfully share their knowledge on these topics with Mr. Biden’s taskforce.
The taskforce might also consider consulting with family member-victims of workplace fatalities through the organziation United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities. USMWF could provide an earful and more on the toll on family members of a workplace death—the economic, physical, emotional and social components. Take, for example, a widow and children who no longer have health insurance because they were covered under the deceased worker’s plan, and now he’s gone. Or a family that is now trying to cover a mortgage payment on one salary instead of two. These kinds of economic challenges are stacked on top of the emotional pain and sadness of losing a loved one. I know that Senator Biden understands that pain because of the death of his first wife and young daughter.
I’ll just leave it at this: the last time I remember a Vice President having responsiblity for anything having to do with “workplace safety” it was 1989 and we had VP Dan Quayle’s Council on Competitiveness. For that I groaned, for this I cheer.
Celeste Monforton, MPH, DrPH is in the Dept of Environmental & Occupational Health, School of Public Health, George Washington University. She is proud to disclose that she is chair of the APHA OHS Section, a supporter of PhilaPOSH and a volunteer with USMWF.