by Elizabeth Grossman

The American Public Health Association’s (APHA) Occupational Health & Safety Section has announced the winners of its 2010 Occupational Health & Safety Awards. In a year that has been marked by what David Michaels, Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health, has described as “a series of workplace tragedies” – among them the deaths of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine and 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico – noting both the honorees, and those in whose honor the awards are given, is a reminder of the enormous work, courage, and long history of efforts to ensure safety at work.

For their outstanding work to improve workers’ health and safety rights and working conditions both in the U.S. and internationally, the 2010 awards recognize five individuals:

  • Dr. Sherry Baron, coordinator for Occupational Health Disparities at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health;
  • Tom O’Connor, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) Network and principal coordinator of the Protecting Workers Alliance;
  • Stephen A. Mitchell, the current Health and Safety Representative for United Automobile Workers (UAW) Local Union 974, representing 5,500 workers at Caterpillar Inc. in the Peoria, IL area;
  • Wally Reardon, a communications tower climber who has dedicated himself to improving safety practices and standards in his fast-growing and dangerous industry; and
  • Dr. Jeong-ok Kong, an occupational health physician who has advocated on behalf of Korean auto and rail industry workers through the Korea Institute of Labor Safety and Health, (KILSH), and most recently for semiconductor industry cancer victims through the organization known as SHARPS (Supporters of Health And Rights of People in Semiconductor Industry).

Their work carries on that begun a century ago by Alice Hamilton, considered to be the founder of occupational health in the United States; by Lorin Kerr, who served for over forty years as a physician for the United Mine Workers and was instrumental in passage of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969; and by Tony Mazzocchi, who was one of the most influential labor leaders in the field of occupational health and safety, founder of the Labor Party, and instrumental in enactment of the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970. It is in their honor that the APHA awards are given. The long history represented here is a reminder of the challenges and dedication involved in this work.

I was heartened to see Dr. Jeong-ok Kong’s name among the honorees, because I’ve become familiar with her work while writing about occupational and environmental health issues in the electronics industry. I first met her at a meeting in Manila in 2008 and the impact of her work has grown steadily since then.

Dr. Kong has faced particularly daunting challenges in her work, especially when advocating on behalf of young workers at Samsung’s Korean semiconductor plants who’ve been stricken with crippling and fatal diseases. According to Korean news media accounts, SHARPS, and other NGOs, there are more than 20 documented cases of Samsung workers who’ve been diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma, and other cancers. At least nine have died of such diseases. Other Samsung workers at these plants are known to be suffering from skin disorders, neuropathy, fertility problems including miscarriages, and chronic nosebleeds.

Dr. Kong has been working to bring international attention to these cases and to win acknowledgement – and action – from Samsung. Workers and their representatives believe exposure to benzene and other carcinogenic chemicals as well as radiation in confined spaces over long hours may be causing these illnesses. Samsung has said it doesn’t use benzene, but is now undertaking an investigation.

Among the challenges Dr. Kong has faced are the Korean restrictions on public assembly, as evidenced this April when she and others holding a press conference were arrested following the funeral service to honor Park Ji-Yeon, a Samsung worker who died of leukemia on March 31, 2010 at age 23. Dr. Kong and seven others were arrested and held at a police station for two days.

In July, Samsung announced it had hired a consulting firm to conduct a year-long investigation of the cluster of leukemia cases at its factories outside of Seoul. According to the AP, as reported in The Boston Globe, Samsung says the investigators will work in consultation with experts from the Harvard University School of Public Health, and “be given complete access to Samsung’s semiconductor manufacturing facilities.” The study will look at both chemical and radiation exposures that might be linked to these and other diseases.

When I wrote to congratulate Dr. Kong on her APHA award she replied, “Thank you very much. I don’t think I deserve to get it. But I believe it would encourage my comrade of SHARPs and hope to be a chance to share and spread our struggle with many others.”

The OHS Section awards will be presented on November 9th at the APHA annual meeting in Denver. You can also read previous Pump Handle posts about the 2007, 2008, and 2009 awardees in our archives.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.