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Sharing ideas and strategies that can actually work

In pursuit of a safe workplace

For the public to understand the dangers posed by many jobs, it’s vital that journalists write about the real story of everyday conditions, risks and strategies affecting working people. At its 2022 annual conference, the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) enabled participants to explore how workers and the broader public can learn about workplace hazards and take action to challenge and resolve them.

Space for workers and advocates

The 2022 conference (COSHCON), held online in the 2nd and 3rd weeks of December, involved a diverse network: newcomers to the labor movement, organizers around Amazon and Starbucks, immigrant workers facing high risk and retaliation, women workers reporting and resisting sexual harassment in the workplace, veteran union organizers and occupational health professionals—industrial hygienists, docs, nurses and researchers. The conference was presented in both English and Spanish, with opportunities for small group work sessions and active sharing of resources.

Melissa Moriarty, storytelling and communications strategist on the National COSH staff, reflected on this year’s gathering:

“Workers know their jobs and know what is needed to stay safe. But employers and public officials don’t always listen to those who pay the price for preventable hazards in the workplace. At COSHCON we create the space for workers and advocates to share ideas for creating positive change—and that includes strategies for making public what happens behind closed doors.”

Getting the story out

The session on media featured one of the key investigative reporters on conditions and resistance at Amazon. Will Evans, longtime staff at REVEAL, talked about the process for making injury data public and about ongoing efforts to make government and corporate data more accessible and understandable.

His series on Amazon emerged through building relations that employees could trust. Carlos Ballesteros is based at Injustice Watch in Chicago. He focuses his stories on older undocumented workers who face retaliation for speaking out. They endure the insecurity of not qualifying for Medicare and Social Security, even though they’ve been paying into it.

An unusual participant in this year’s COSHCON was Gretchen Carlson—unusual because she is a longtime media celebrity on FOX news. But she’s taken a new journey: revealing the sexual harassment she was subjected to at Fox and becoming a champion for workers facing sexual harassment.

All three speakers conveyed the challenges and urgency of workers getting their stories out into the public for others to learn from. They spoke of the vital need to support those who come forward—sometimes at great risk—to protect themselves, their co-workers and the broader community.

Activating the system for protection

Discussions at this year’s conference included introductory explorations of the governmental terrain that folks have to travel to protect workers from injury and disease. It’s daunting to enter into the world of OSHA, NIOSH and the NLRB—especially, if you’re new to all of this. You need to figure out if you’re in a state that is covered by OSHA or in one of the 27 states that has its own system that is supposed to be built upon OSHA as a baseline. Washington is one of those states, with occupational safety and health standards considered to be quite solid and effective.

One theme emerged throughout the conference. We need to be informed about that system, we need to call on and activate that system, and we need to call it to account when it falters. A repeated message: it’s one thing to have reasonable safety-and-health regulations on the books; it’s another to have those regulations actively enforced, with enough staff prepared and able to make the system real on a daily basis.

Asking the hard questions

Against the backdrop of dealing with government agencies and less-than-responsible employers, there is the daily challenge for workers and allied occupational health professionals of actually conducting inspections. One COSHCON session featured seasoned union-based inspectors from UAW and USW leading a problem-solving session on how to ask the hard questions about what caused an accident or exposure.

Using an example of a nurse who “made an error” due to poor staffing and inappropriate interference, the workshop leaders offered questions that would help ensure a solution that protects workers’ rights. Their key message: we must learn from errors and mishaps so that workplaces function to support workers and the broader public.

Elevated risk from climate change

Many COSHCON participants were eager to talk about the impacts of climate change on workers and communities. Two very energetic workshops hosted lively discussions about the unequal and unjust burdens of climate change: heat, smoke, storms and floods. Many workers, particularly those who work outside, face elevated risks that will likely worsen. There is a push for national legislation providing an effective and enforceable heat exposure rule. At the state level, Washington, Oregon and California are taking the lead to protect workers from heat and smoke exposure.

Seasoned activists and rising meteors

In the closing session, there was an enthusiastic focus on the cross-generational strengthening of the safety-and-health world. Elder activists talked about the “rising meteors” of the movement—young folks who are facing severe hazards and coming up with new models, inventive ways to use social media, and building a dramatic presence in communities across the country. Seasoned activists from civil rights struggles talked about facing down “terror on the factory floor” and applauded emerging groups that are building on labor’s past achievements to reach out to more marginalized workers—immigrant workers, incarcerated workers, domestic workers.

Jaribu Hill, from the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, offered this as COSHCON came to a close: “We are all students in this.”

COSH is a network that brings together the labor movement, health providers, researchers, environmental advocates, and social justice activists. COSHCON is its annual gathering for folks on the frontlines who face imminent hazards and long-term health risks, as well as employers that undermine workers’ right-to-know and right-to-act.

Lin Nelson serves as part of the COSH Advisors Network; she retired from The Evergreen State College. Her article first appeared in The Stand.

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