Occupational Health: Time for Us to Get to Work

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Occupational Health: Time for Us to Get to Work

by Frank Mirer

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 4, No. 6, November 1972, p. 4 – 7

Occupational health and job safety issues have yet to become “hot” topics with the left like community health clinics, air pollution, or poisons in food, but lately there have been stirrings of interest. The topic has been discussed a bit in Science for the People but I think that it’s important that SESPA members do more about it. This article is an attempt to recruit both organizers and technical help. The first part of the article will describe some developments which have lead to an upswing in interest. There will be a description of some of the ongoing projects. Finally there will be a discussion of the significance of this type of activity for SESPA.

The potential for occupational health as a focus of political action is seen in the Black Lung Movement in Appalachia. Some 300,000 miners suffer from Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis, a disease which U.S. public health and industry authorities claimed was non-existent up until a few years ago, even though the disease had been well studied in England and elsewhere. For years there had been agitation for relief, but the successful push started in 1968, when the Black Lung Association was formed. In that year, three doctors named Rasmussen, Buff and Wells traveled through West Virginia, lecturing to miners groups, explaining the connection between coal dust and lung failure. Once the miners became conscious that disability and early death were not inevitable risks of mining, there was an upswing in rank-and-file action leading to a 23-day wildcat strike in February 1969 which completely stopped coal mining in West Virginia. This new pressure, combined with interest in the problem outside the mining region, lead to state and federal legislation regarding disability benefits and safety standards. The fight still continues, as the Social Security Administration has set up medical criteria for receiving benefits which exclude the majority of the applicants for such funds. What is less familiar is the effect of the Black Lung Association on the United Mine Workers Union (UMW). The BLA is organized into local chapters which provide an arena for the development of l0cal leadership previously excluded by the union and is a focus of insurgent efforts. Arnold Miller, currently challenging Tony Boyle for the presidency of the UMW, is president of the BLA. Joseph Yablonski, murdered for his union reform campaign, was identified with mine safety issues as well.

Another spur to interest is the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 (Williams-Steiger Act, usually referred to as OSHA). The passage of legislation has set offered a round of criteria documents (official statements about scientific issues), fights over the setting of standards, public hearings, and discussion and controversy within the circle of professional industrial health workers. Legally, and in part politically, the situation is very similar to that regarding air pollution legislation. The law could be effective if it were aggressively pushed, but inadequate staffing, lax enforcement, small fines for violations and the like have prompted criticism and investigation of the Department of Labor and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The prospect of a political contest over technical issues has lead unionists to seek aid from progressive medical and scientific workers. The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW, 1126 16th St., N.W., Washington, 20036) has been very important in this effort. OCAW has published a good deal of material about job hazards, including transcripts of a series of 8 all-day conferences in which union members discussed the particular conditions in their shops. So-called “public-interest” and citizens groups such as the Nader organization’s Health Research Group have been enlisted.

The increase in general interest has lead to organizing activity on the left. This in turn has defined situations in which SESPA members, with some technical knowledge and contact with medical and scientific workers, can perform quite effectively. I will describe a number of projects and groups, mainly on the East Coast, to give an idea of what people are doing.

The Scientist’s Committee on Occupational Health (SCOH) may be familiar to readers of Science for the People since it was described in the May 1972 issue (p. 10). Their key activity was to teach an 11-week course in occupational health to rank-and-file members of the OCAW and other unions in the New York-New Jersey area. They later taught other shorter courses. The longer course included a serious and extended discussion of human physiology as well as discussions of various hazards and monitoring techniques. One successful idea was to provide workers with monitoring equipment. After an instructional session on the operation of noise meters, the workers took them into their shops. The next week’s session of the course was taken up with excited reports of their findings and of the reactions of management and other workers to the introduction of the equipment. SCOH reports that the sessions devoted to explaining how the body functions were not academic expert trips-as they had feared-but instead were lively discussions among equals. This points the way to the possibility of teaching science for the people. Occupational Hazards, a text written by SCOH, is currently looking for a publisher, but is available in limited quantities from OCAW.

Urban Planning Aid Occupational Health Group (UPA, 639 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 02139) has an extensive range of locally oriented activities. The group conducts training courses in health and safety, some directly union organized and some as part of the program of the University of Massachusetts Institute for Labor Affairs. (Many state universities have programs of this type which can provide funds for organizing projects in return for teaching). The courses are designed to lead unionists to diagnose safety problems in their shops, and to continue contact with the project as the problems are cleaned up. Most of the group’s effort is directed toward maintaining contact with particular situations, providing technical advice, library research, arranging medical examinations and plant inspections, and maintaining liaison between the workers and the certified “experts.” Details about a lot of skirmishes are found in Survival Kit, a monthly newsletter. UPA is a community organizing resource group whose effort in occupational health grows out of an interest in community health programs. An approach now being tried in conjunction with neighborhood clinics like the Somerville Women’s Health Clinic is to take job histories along with medical histories. This has already produced some results.

Occupational Health has been selected as a major national focus for Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) activities. The style they have adopted is to set up weekend conferences bringing together unionists, health workers, and specialists in industrial hygiene. There is follow-up, mainly in the form of providing technical back-up to union activities. MCHR does some local work and is the major active group in the midwest, particularly in Chicago. However, it views its primary purpose as supplying information and literature, coordinating activities, and acting as a focus for national agitation.

Most people interested in analysis of the politics and economics of America’s health-care system have read the Health-PAC bulletin. Lately, Health-PAC (17 Murray St., New York 10007) has turned its attention to occupational health, writing mainly about the power structure and such organizations as the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists and other standards setting bodies. They have also put out case histories of the setting of particular standards (called Threshold Limit Values) such as that for cotton dust, the cause of byssinosis. Two issues of the Bulletin this fall will contain information about occupational health.

The Connecticut Occupational Health Project (44 Linwood Pl., New Haven, 06511) has tried out some new approaches to local organizing. They have distributed questionnaires through high schools, trying to get information about parent’s jobs and stir up interest in job safety both in students (who will soon be working) and in working parents. They have also been developing some ideas for using Neighborhood Youth Corps workers in canvassing workplaces. In addition, the group is in contact with a number of local unions as well as the central labor councils in the area. They are affiliated with a Nader regional PIRG and with MCHR.

Other groups are getting started or are in action in Stonybrook, Philadelphia (Health Information Project), Pittsburgh (Oakland Co-op), Atlanta and Detroit.

In urging people to direct their efforts in this direction, I would like to make an evaluation of the prospects for radicals in general and for SESPA in particular. A lot of my ideas come from discussions at a conference of activists held in June, as well as from my own experiences.

The strongest political argument for working on the issue is very simple—it is important for the left to make contacts with industrial workers. Occupational health organizing is one of the few clear avenues for doing this, one which calls for a real alliance. Also, any issue which has demonstrated the potential for setting people into motion in a progressive direction should be pushed. Further, occupational health is of use to progressives in the union leadership and to activists in the rank-and-file. The legal ramifications of the health laws give workers who are in a weak position another weapon to better their working conditions. This is precisely the sector of the work force we should ally with. Finally, and perhaps most important, this is a humanitarian issue which should not be ignored.

An assessment of present organizing activities is that they have established a good potential for further work. Whenever sufficient energy is generated by a group of activists, they have at least gotten to first base by establishing contacts with working people and union organizations. There have not been large gains in radical consciousness of industrial workers at large, but I think that it is unrealistic to expect such change without a corresponding change in objective conditions (events such as a change in the state of the economy, change in composition of the work force, a cultural crisis). The actions follow the general pattern of more familiar community organizing activities, in this case involving the interaction of union leadership, rank-and-file activists and radicals who usually come from outside the class or cultural background of the constituency they hope to serve. The training courses, plant visits, discussions with union committees and support for local struggles together represent an interesting way for us to approach workplace organizing around worker control demands, one which does not require us to work permanently in the shop. I found that it is also an exciting change from feeling trapped in the student-professional sector. In discussion and evaluation of their activities, organizers tend to focus on the problems that come up—dealing with unions in general, limits to energy in the workplace, relating to other issues such as move outs, firings, racism and so forth. For instance, one project (name withheld) reports that one of its contacts is at a major defense contractor, and that this raises a series of practical problems such as plant security, while of course bringing up the political question of whether defense work should be done at all. The big question is how to work out the best ways of putting forward a general radical outlook in the face of business union attitudes, an outlook often determined by “crass” politics, not class politics. The consensus is that the most important direction for further activity is contact at the rank-and-file, plant and local union level.

Why is this issue particularly relevant to SESPA? For one thing, organizers feel the need for technical backup, something they are not getting enough of. This is a bit of a paradox. The worst hazards in the shop—either threat of accident or toxic hazards—are usually well known to workers. The first, and ultimately most important push for change could arise spontaneously on the shop floor. But action often awaits the raising of concern about the problem, starting with explanations to workers of concepts about toxic hazards, occupational disease, monitoring procedures, legal issues and so forth. An example of this is the role of doctors in the Black Lung Movement. Teaching and advising on this level is an exciting experience in non-alienated science. There is also a need for materials for training interested technical workers, for course material aimed at introducing college and high school students to the issue, and for written descriptions of specific hazards 6 Science for the People or analysis of particular industrial situations. Library and laboratory research in the area is also important.

The field should not be left to straight professionals who, when not in the pay of industry aim at doing what they can for workers only at minimum cost and without challenging management prerogatives in the shop. An advantage of a service project in this area, over other technical assistance projects we’ve heard about is that the constituency is well-defined, self-conscious, and already organized. There is even the eventual possibility of a union supported institute to provide technical services and do research. Further, while this is a health-related issue, other scientific disciplines such as chemistry (monitoring and analysis), engineering (ventilation, noise control), physics (study of respiratory mechanics, instrumentation) and several others fit in. It’s not just a matter of giving away free medical care. Alliance across status lines within an industry is also a reasonable prospect. For instance, in the chemical industry, research chemists, technicians and production workers face many of the same hazards.

There are political issues and problems inherent in the expert function that is part of my proposal. These are often discussed in Science for the People and I won’t consider them here except to say that they must be struggled with in practice. I will consider the practical problems with being in a technical bag. It’s tough to fit into a project if you’re only able to make a part-time commitment as many SESP A people would have to do. Considerable thought has to be given to liaison with organizers in the field, dividing work into clearly defined tasks and avoiding diffusion of responsibility. The second problem, endemic in SESPA, is the lack of applied knowledge. Given a social problem with a major technical component, we usually have to look outside for information. We know the “correct” answer—that technology is not the problem and that a political solution has to be reached—but most of us would have trouble collecting the concrete technical information to prove that point. This condition is related in part to our alienation from our work and distaste for the expert role. Also, many of us have avoided the applied disciplines, which have been captured and misused, by taking the path of “pure” science, usually physics or molecular biology. I don’t believe that every radical scientific worker should seek out a service role, but I do think that it is important for some of us to take on the task of exploring models of this type.

My feeling, after some experience, is that the practical difficulties of fitting into projects can be overcome with some initiative, imagination and effort. The two steps for individuals who want to get into action are technical self- education (not very difficult at the start) and getting into contact with organizers who are already at work. The best way to learn is by doing, and the best people to learn from are the workers in the shop. Useful outlines for self-education in industrial hygiene and toxicology—not just reading lists—are in preparation. MCHR also can supply some technical material. For information about activity going on in your area, contact one of the three names listed below.

Dave Kotelchuck
49 West 96th St.
New York, N.Y. 10025

Frank Mirer
42 Tremont St.
Cambridge, Mass 02139

Dan Berman
Occupational Health Project
710 South Marshfield
Chicago, Ill. 60612


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