At the 141st meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA) held last week in Boston, the organization’s Occupational Health & Safety section honored the achievements of some extraordinarily dedicated individuals and organizations whose efforts have been advancing workplace safety. While these awards are typically most meaningful to others in the field, events taking place elsewhere around the country – among them the largest Walmart workers’ strike to date and voter approval of the country’s highest yet minimum wage – highlight the importance of this year’s award winners’ work and why their efforts matter to people who may never have heard of the APHA.
Tish Davis, director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Occupational Health Surveillance program, winner of the 2013 Alice Hamilton Award. Davis has worked extensively with young workers and construction workers. She has developed programs to document the underreporting of occupational injuries and illnesses and collaborated with workers and community members to develop effective prevention programs.
Sharon Beard, industrial hygienist with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Worker Education Training Program, winner of the 2013 Lorin Kerr Award. Beard helped establish the NIEHS Minority Worker Training Program and has developed safety and health training programs for low-income workers, particularly those in highly hazardous occupations.
Warehouse Workers United (WWU), which has organized warehouse workers in southern California, winner of the 2013 Tony Mazzocchi award. Started in 2009, WWU has helped win better working conditions for region’s tens of thousands of warehouse workers, the majority of whom are Latino and hired through temp agencies.
Honored with a special award was the Occupational Health Internship Program that for ten years has been helping students learn about the field of occupational health and safety by working with labor unions and community-based organizations. Since 2004, almost 200 students have worked at 11 different sites across the country in a range of industries, often with new immigrants in high-hazard jobs. OHIP is credited with inspiring a new generation of occupational health and safety professionals.
The awards were bestowed on November 5 – Election Day 2013 – a day on which New Jersey voters approved a measure to increase the state’s minimum wage from the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour to $8.25. At the same time, voters in Sea-Tac, Washington voted to raise minimum wages for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport hospitality and transportation workers form $9.19 to $15 an hour – which will be the country’s highest minimum wage.
(President Obama is reported to be in support of congressional Democrats’ efforts to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10, but such a proposal is considered to have little chance of approval by House Republicans. At $10.10 an hour, an employee working 40 hours a week for 52 full weeks would earn an annual salary of $21,008. In which US community is that really a living wage?)
These awards also come at a time when the country’s income gap is greater than ever and continues to expand – the Dow Jones Industrial average hit two all-time highs last week – and the fastest growing jobs sectors are those with the lowest wages and least security. They also come not long after the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that fatal work injuries involving workers under age 16 nearly doubled between 2011 and 2012, making last year’s on-the-job deaths of young workers the highest since 2005. In the same release, BLS reported that fatal work injuries in private construction increased by 5 percent in 2012 and that of these 775 occupational fatalities, 708 were workers identified as contractors. In mining and oil and gas extraction, two other high risk occupations, occupational fatalities also rose in 2012. Those in oil and gas extraction rose by 23 percent to an all-time recorded high. At the same time, BLS reported that occupational fatalities were higher among African-American and Asian-American workers than other ethnic groups – all numbers that attest to the ongoing need for the efforts led by Beard and Davis.
The work of Warehouse Workers United was on display two days after the awards ceremony, as Walmart workers from southern California staged a strike in Los Angeles. The November 7 demonstration was organized by a coalition of groups, among them Warehouse Workers United and OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart), to protest the low wages (under $25,000 a year) hundreds of thousands of Walmart workers earn.
On Friday, November 8, I spoke to Richard Reynoso, who works at a Walmart in southern California. The day before in Los Angeles, he had participated in what is being called the largest strike of Walmart workers to date and, as he put it, “volunteered to be arrested” for civil disobedience. Reynoso works as an overnight stocker and says he made less than $15,000 last year. “There’s people who don’t get paid enough and are selling plasma to provide food for their families,” Reynoso told me. Some co-workers rely on food banks, he said. Asked how he and his family manage on this income, Reynoso said, “I can’t really say but it’s been very stressful.”
“There are also a lot of safety hazards on the job,” he said. Balers used to compress cardboard boxes are in dangerous disrepair, ladders need fixing, and ice builds up on the floor outside the walk-in freezer-cooler, he told me. Reynoso says he has brought these and other problems to managers’ attention but they haven’t been fixed promptly, so the hazards persist. When I spoke to Reynoso he hadn’t yet been back to work after the strike so did not know how his supervisors might respond. Since then he has written to say that there has not been any immediate retaliation but that sometimes such action doesn’t occur immediately.
Similar strikes have followed this past week in Seattle and Chicago. Walmart has not responded to a request for comment on the California strike.
At a time when safe jobs that pay a living wage are so badly needed, the work of Sharon Beard, Tish Davis, Warehouse Workers United and the Occupational Health Internship Program and all those they inspire, become ever more important.
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, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, TheAtlantic.com, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.