by Anthony Robbins, MD, MPA
Every year, the United Health Foundation (UHF) publishes America’s Health Rankings. Today UHF released their 22nd annual report. Rankings are a useful gimmick for getting attention as everyone surely looks at his/her own state. I was particularly proud to find my state of Vermont at the top of the list. I also looked to see how the report, titled A Call to Action for Individuals & Their Communities, might reflect changing attitudes toward the health problems caused by workplace environments, a long-term concern of mine. What I found is discouraging.
Worker protection, unlike many public health objectives, is firmly and clearly embedded in federal law, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Yet the two Federal public health officials who introduce the 2011 Edition, the head of CDC and the Surgeon General, never mention OSHA, a law and programs directly within their domains.
The Report does note that measures of workplace safety are often weak yet they rely on counts of workplace fatalities, correcting for the industry mix. One might think that they understand the problem, except they proudly report improvements in workplace fatality rates. To do so requires that they ignore an economy that stopped growing in 2008, and more importantly, that dangerous manufacturing jobs have been moving abroad for many years. What workers know is that very few if any particular jobs are safer today than a few years ago.
Something is surely wrong with public health when we have a strong statute, OSHA, and our leaders shy away from asking that the law be enforced. Apparently, enforcing the law to protect workers “takes health professionals outside their comfort zone.” [Report, p. 118]
Anthony Robbins, MD, MPA is a Professor of Public Health at Tufts University School of Medicine and co-editor of the Journal of Public Health Policy. He directed the Vermont, then the Colorado, state health departments and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health before serving as professional staff to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.