A Labor of Love

In some industries, OHS professionals in labor unions are the only ones in a position to influence workplace health and safety.

A small niche in our profession is that of the occupational hygiene and safety (OHS) professional who works for a labor union. Although few in number, these folks play a critical role in establishing OHS programs, advocating new standards, educating workers and managers, and participating in research. In some cases, they are the only OHS professionals available in certain high-risk industries.

In the OHS profession, our jobs pay well, are quite interesting, involve technological and interpersonal knowledge and skills, and provide the self-satisfaction that derives from serving the greater good. We serve labor, industry, government, academia, consulting companies, the professional community and the profession. Most of all, we serve the cause of protecting workers from occupational hazards.

"OHS professionals in labor unions" is not a small niche because the need is small, but because the resources are stretched thin. I'm not talking about liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican, or AFL-CIO or National Association of Manufacturers positions. I'm not talking about the right to organize, a living wage, the ILO convention or trade-with-China stuff. I'm talking about the need for people to be down in the trenches, breaking their backs to help to protect workers from occupational safety and health hazards, whether it be injury, disease or death.

We can agree that there is such a need.

Filling a Need

What if you believe that industrial and consultant OHS professionals already fill that need? Undoubtedly, you are partly right, but not completely. Labor-union OHS professionals provide expertise to union leaders and members who may not trust management-appointed personnel. The resources that labor brings to health and safety programs are often the difference between being reactive and proactive. Surely having qualified leadership is a key component in creating an atmosphere where all workplace stakeholders can participate effectively in OHS programs.

Furthermore, there is a vast underbelly of the "unprotected worker" in industries that is beyond the reach of most OHS professionals. For example, the service sector is a growing part of our economy and includes food service and building maintenance workers. Health care is also expanding and includes housekeeping, such as a janitor, a laundry room worker in a hospital or an aide in a nursing home. Public-sector employment includes parole officers, family services, social workers and psychiatric institution employees. Agriculture, taxi driving, commercial fishing and trucking are high-hazard professions that do not typically employ OSH professionals.

How many of you would like to work in one of those professions? Think about the safety, physical, biological and chemical hazards associated with those jobs. Think about the burden of occupational injury and illness and workers' compensation costs associated with them. Does that thought send chills down your back or turn your stomach? How many of you think that OHS professionals from industry or consulting adequately reach those workers? In some cases, labor OHS professionals are the only ones in a position to influence these industries.

A Role Model

This brings us to Donald*, who I met when he came to the University of Michigan as a master's degree student. I do not remember how he did on homework assignments or on exams, but I am quite sure he did a credible job. What I do remember is the sharp focus of his vision, the clarity of his speech, the reasonableness in his eyes and the empathy in his face. He understood why God put him on this Earth.

Now, the same may apply to many of the readers of this column. We are all well-focused professionals who understand ethical and technical imperatives of our work. There are many good people with whom I have personally worked with over the years. Yet, I am not talking about the rest of you in this column. I am talking about Donald, now a labor union OHS professional in New York.

His clothes are formal (jacket and tie) when going to meetings, with slacks and dress shirt worn in the office. His office is large and modern, yet crowded, ratty and full of files. There is an extensive library with four overflowing, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and two four-drawer, lateral filing cabinets. Two 99-pocket, 8 1/2-inch by 11-inch revolving document holders are full of fact sheets and documents frequently requested on issues such as indoor air quality, VDT ergonomics, bloodborne pathogens, workplace violence, and public employee health and safety complaints. He has a large, locking file cabinet in which he keeps air monitoring equipment, cameras and CDs.

Donald has a large desk facing the door with a computer hutch on the other side of the desk adjacent to the wall. There is a small conference table and four chairs in the office, with about six boxes of various files from major projects on the floor. There are no windows.

He is on the road about seven days a month, but also has many local meetings in the state capital because that is where most state agency headquarters are located. He administers several training grants and an intervention-effectiveness grant in the area of violence prevention.

Donald has a staff of six, including three health and safety specialists who do training, technical support and special projects. Much of his effort goes toward 130 joint health and safety committees that exist as part of the collective bargaining agreement between his union and the state government. He and his staff facilitate many of these committees, especially in high-hazard agencies such as corrections, mental health and environmental conservation.

Donald also administers joint funds on behalf of labor and management. The hallmark of his program is to be proactive around four key hazard areas: workplace violence prevention, indoor air quality, infectious disease control and ergonomics (health care and office).

Donald notes how much difference there is among labor unions regarding health and safety resources. "It is quite varied," he said. "For example, one large union of 1 million workers nationwide, serving hundreds of employers and collective bargaining agreements, has only one full-time health and safety professional. The UAW, by contrast, has an intricate network of health and safety staff, funded by the union and the collective bargaining agreement, and many proactive programs.

"In my case, the organization is statewide, not nationwide, and there is only one contract. We have 54,000 members in a work force that is 200,000 statewide, including blue-collar and management personnel. We are one of seven unions representing state employees. In many of the unions that have sparse resources dedicated to health and safety, my colleagues in labor tend to spend a majority of their time putting out fires."

Influencing Others

The important thing is that Donald serves his customers, who are the workers in his union. In doing so, he serves our profession, and he serves public and private enterprises that hire his union's members.

Senior Parole Officer Ross Aronson says of Donald:

"In the fall of 1991, there was an outbreak of multiple drug-resistant tuberculosis in the state prison system. Parole's Labor/Management Health and Safety Committee needed to develop a tuberculosis control program, but we had no idea where to begin.

"Then, along came Donald. His guidance and participation proved invaluable to our committee. Over the years, he has provided the Division of Parole with many hours of invaluable assistance. We now consider Donald to be a close friend, as well as an integral member of our team."

Another colleague, union representative Michele Routi, says:

"The great wealth of health and safety knowledge this man has is a source for not only the members of labor unions, but has become a respected resource for employers of these workers, as well. I am amazed time and again at labor-management meetings, and outside the meetings on a regular basis, how employers request facts, opinions and ideas from Donald on all types of health and safety issues.

"He has initiated the successful application for many health and safety grants. He has directed and led the union's health and safety department and developed a vigorous health and safety program that provides answers, training and information to a diverse membership of professional, technical and scientific employees all over New York. Part of the program is the annual union health and safety conference, which Donald initiated and which has become a learning center for unionized and nonunion state-agency employees and employers.

"Donald is not shy about visiting worksites and demonstrating his passion for safety and nonviolence. Donald's value is priceless."

Let us not overlook this small niche in our profession. In fact, OHS professionals in industry, academia, government, consulting and research should seek out and collaborate with labor OHS personnel.

While the practice of OHS goes on in industry, academia, government and consulting, a major impact is made by these "Donalds," who are largely invisible to us all. They understand the meaning of the quotation from Mitch Albom's book, "Tuesdays With Morrie":

"A meaningful life will not be found in the next job or the next car. The way you get meaning in your life is to devote yourself to helping others and creating something that gives you purpose."

Contributing editor Steven P. Levine, Ph.D., CIH2, is president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. He is a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan.

* This is the true story of an actual person, but Donald is not his real name.

This column is the opinion of Steven P. Levine and is not necessarily the opinion of AIHA nor its board of directors.

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