The Occupational Health & Safety Section’s Annual Awards Luncheon is always one of the highlights of the APHA Annual Meeting, due its combination of inspiring awardees and creative musical skit.

This year’s award winners won well-deserved recognition for (among other achievements) advancing the rights of chemical workers; developing a health disparities institute; honing methods for worker training; and organizing workers exposed to harmful substances to demand justice and compensation.

Sylvia Kieding won the 2009 Alice Hamilton Award, which “recognizes the life-long contributions of individuals who have distinguished themselves through a career of hard work and dedication to improve the lives of workers.” Kieding began working at the Denver headquarters of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union in 1973, and spent 25 years making the union’s Lifelines newsletter “one of the most distinguished and powerful educational newsletters in the US.” She currently coordinates a medical surveillance program for thousands of OCAW members in the atomic sector. Although Kieding was recovery from hip surgery and unable to attend the luncheon, cell phone technology enabled her to say a few words of acceptance and hear the thundering applause for her four decades of tireless work as a labor, environmental, and community activist.

Kerry Souza won the 2009 Lorin Kerr Award, which “recognizes a younger activist for their sustained and outstanding efforts and dedication to improve the lives of workers.” Her work includes an innovative program that enhances community health centers’ abilities to recognize and treat work-related injuries among low-income, minority, and immigrant workers, and the development of the Occupational Health Disparities Institute, which has become a significant part of the OHS Section activities at the APHA Annual Meeting. Souza’s tireless work for the section – which, as she noted in her acceptance speech, involves a lot of 7am conference calls – includes extensive program planning and facilitating the participation of young members.

Steve Schrag won the 2009 Tony Mazzocchi Award, which “gives recognition to grassroots H&S activitists in Local Unions or other local organizations fighting for the H&S rights of workers.” As “one of the country’s premier worker trainers,” Schrag uses the action-oriented Small Group Activity Method to “engage workers on both their own health and safety issues and larger policy and political goals.” Since 1985, he has conducted workshops, seminars, and conferences for over 11,000 workers on a range of issues, and his most recent development is a leadership training based on Tony Mazzocchi’s biography. A board member at both ConnectiCOSH and NYCOSH, “he is always at the center of political discussions and developing new training programs.”

Antonio de Marco Rasteiro won the 2009 International H&S Award, which “recognizes individuals with outstanding achievement in the field of occupational health and safety outside the United States.” Rasteiro worked for 21 years at the Shell Brasil S/A pesticide manufacturing plant in Paulinia, Brazil. After learning about the risks of pesticides and realizing that many of the illnesses suffered by plant workers were probably linked to their occupational chemical exposures, Rasteiro and other former workers created the Associação dos Trabalhadores Expostos a Substâncias Químicas (Association of Workers Exposed to Chemical Substances), or ATESQ, to demand compensation. Together with the Sindicato Químicos Unificados (United Chemical Workers) and under Rasteiro’s leadership, ATESQ has been fighting for more than five years and has raised the profile of their case and the broader issue of worker exposure internationally. Like many of his colleagues, Rasteiro suffers from hypertension, hearing loss, and prostate and lung cancers. In his acceptance speech, Rasteiro told the audience that more than 51 former plant workers have died at ages from 28 to 60, compared to an average regional life expectancy of 75; he himself does not expect to live much longer, but “I do not intend to give up the responsibility that was born inside me, guided by my conscience.” Rasteiro told the group that he expects this award from APHA to strengthen their struggle.

Congratulations to all of the 2009 award winners! You can read more about the honorees and the awards’ history in the award program, and learn more about past honorees here.

After the awards were given, it was time for the traditional skit. This year’s creative masterpiece featured unscrupulous corporate executives contracting the “greedy swine flu,” which consists of an unusual constellation of symptoms (including pustules). A healthy dose of Occupational Safety and Health spirit allows vaccine-production workers to create an altruism vaccine that alleviates symptoms not only of the virus but of the executives’ dismissive attitudes toward worker welfare. Songmaster Luis Vazquez captured the visionary spirit with new lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine” (which we hope to be able to post here shortly – stay tuned!). Finally, the event closed with the traditional sing-along of “This Land is Your Land.”

As always, the Occupational Health & Safety Section’s Annual Award Luncheon captured the spirit of the section and of the movement for health and safety: staunch dedication to the cause of worker’s health and safety, a visionary spirit, and a willingness to combine a serious purpose with a spirit of fun.