Editorial: Politics and Partnerships

Nov. 16, 2004
While the Washington scene shows little interest in fence-building, here's to the promotion of a partnership between health and safety.

First, a post-election confession. I never want to see another presidential campaign ad again. Living in a "battleground" state, I was unfortunate enough to witness the full power and glory of millions of dollars thrown at every television outlet to ensure that no Ohio voter went to bed without having been mercilessly pummeled with Bush and Kerry campaign ads.

In case you are wondering, the Geneva Convention is supposed to protect civilians from this kind of assault. In fact, Article 3 prohibits "(a) Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; (b) Taking of hostages; (c) Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment." I would make the case that both campaigns, not to mention all the PACs, are guilty on each count.

In his concession address, Sen. John Kerry said he and President Bush had "talked about the danger of division in our country and the need the desperate need for unity, for finding the common ground, coming together. Today, I hope that we can begin the healing." I haven't seen much evidence of it. For example, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney noted on the organization's Web site that the election "did not give President George W. Bush a 'mandate' to continue policies that have cost us good jobs, affordable health care and retirement security." At the OMB Watch Web site, the group reminded visitors that the Bush Administration "mounted an all-out assault on regulatory safeguards in its first term."

On the other side of the great divide, House Majority Leader Tom Delay shortly after the election was talking about what the Republican Party could do to "reshape American politics and society for a generation." High on that list: regulatory reform. Delay cited a Small Business Administration study pegging the cost of "the regulatory state to the American people" at $800 billion, or 8 percent of gross domestic product. He said conservatives have an opportunity to "finally do something about the skyrocketing costs and crippling economic effects of federal regulation." Is OSHA included in the regulatory state? Well, Delay was the person who led the charge against the Clinton Administration's ergonomics standard.

These are examples of issues and rhetoric that will bring us together in much the same way that a bugle call brings two armies together. Both sides seem to have immediately plunged into trying to figure out how to make sure that they are the winner in the 2008 election. If that effort leads to television advertising any time soon, that might be a reason to consider moving to Canada.

Safety and Health

But rather than give any more attention to division, I would rather focus on the words of Dr. John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Last month, Howard gave the keynote presentation at a Washington symposium on "Steps to a Healthier U.S. Workforce." Howard pointed out that the occupational safety and health community has focused it efforts on "ensuring that employers can, and do, provide working conditions that are safe and healthful for workers." But those efforts, he noted, assume that "workers are just as healthy as they can be when they come to work."

The health promotion and education communities, on the other hand, primarily work to foster "lifestyle choices that enhance health for everyone, including those who leave their homes every day to go to work or, increasingly, stay in their homes to 'do work,'" said Howard. Coordination between the two communities, he said, is "often more the result of coincidence than intention."

But there are plenty of good reasons to take advantage of whatever avenues are available to promote safety and health in the workplace. "Of the one and one-half trillion dollars expended each year in the American medical care system, about 80 percent of those dollars are spent for medical care for chronic diseases and chronic disabling injuries," said Howard.

Howard called the conference a first step toward building a partnership between these two communities so that "health-enhancing behaviors are valued and promoted in the workplace along with safety and health protection." He said the "continued separation of focus on at-work and off-work risks is artificial and is not serving workers or their employers optimally."

If you're following the same divisive model in your company, maybe it's time to explore the common ground between employee health and worker safety and cast your vote for a holistic approach to this expensive problem.

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