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MassCOSH: Organizing for Occupational Health
by Richard Youngstrom and Bob Dubrow
We think it will never happen to us. But every day 300 American workers are killed by their jobs. Every day.
We think we will endure it for the sake of our families. But the chemicals we use at work come home with us to hurt our children. And the tension created by unsafe conditions ruins our home life. Every day.
Every day new materials and work processes create new dangers. In the past years management has used our economic insecurity to cut back health and safety protection.
Today more than ever, it is vital that we know our rights, learn how to recognize the hazards we face, and find methods of mutual support to help us clean up the mess.
That is why this conference is important for every steward, safety committee member, unionist, and worker.
This statement introduced 350 workers and interested people to the first annual conference on Job Health and Safety presented by the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH). The conference, coordinated by Urban Planning Aid and others, and sponsored by many labor councils and union locals in Massachusetts, was held at Framingham State College on April 3. MassCOSH is intended to bring together workers and other interested persons in a statewide organization to work around health and safety issues. The organization will be patterned roughly after other “COSH” groups around the country.
The principal speaker of the morning introductory session was Tony Mazzochi, Legislative Coordinator for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union and longtime activist in worker health and safety. Mazzochi stressed the importance of union organizations in the struggle for health and safety in the workplace. “Unorganized workers give their lives to their employer,” he said. A collective bargaining agreement which recognizes the right of the union to represent and protect its members is of paramount importance. It gives the union the right to demand that management provide complete information concerning the materials to which workers are exposed and all other hazards of the workplace. It may even mean that local unions are legally responsible for their workers’ health and safety.
Another area of critical importance in this struggle is the management tactic of choosing the worker to fit the job, rather than changing the job to make it safe. For example, women capable of bearing children are barred from certain work situations (exposure to lead in smelting operations) and the possibility of medical and genetic screening of workers is on the horizon. Mazzochi referred to the loss of jobs by the removal of workers from unsafe jobs as the “Trojan Horse” of the health and safety movement.
Two other speakers, Bob Fowler from the International Association of Machinists in San Francisco and Steve Early, formerly a writer for the United Mine Workers’ Journal, also participated in the morning session which preceded the first workshops. Steve spoke about his involvement with coal mine health and safety, describing the unbelievably hazardous work conditions and the inability of MESA (the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration) to force the mine owners to comply with health and safety regulations. He described the more numerous but much safer coal mines of Great Britain, and emphasized that public ownership of the mines in this country is the way to make them safe.
The morning workshop sessions were divided into several topics dealing with health and safety strategies in the workplace, including: safety committees, how to survey your workplace, how to use OSHA, and workers’ compensation. It was agreed that much more time could be devoted to all of these areas and future MassCOSH activities will be planned for further discussion.
The afternoon session was opened with a talk, “What your body is telling you – occupational health problems,” given by two physicians: Larry Fine from New England Medical Center and Nancy Sprince from Mass. General Hospital. Afternoon workshops dealing with specific health and safety topics were again well attended and discussion was lively. These sessions were on noise, toxic materials, general principles of safety, hazards women face, metal cutting and welding, ventilation, and hazards in hospitals and labs.
A summing-up meeting was held at the end of the day to discuss the day’s events and plan an organizing meeting for MassCOSH. It was agreed that the conference had been very successful in bringing together many people across the state interested in the important issues of worker health and safety.
The Science for the People Occupational Health and Safety Group in Boston hopes to be an active participant in MassCOSH, helping to write fact sheets and researching specific workplace hazards.