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It’s time for me to boast about the most amazing assembly of worker H&S researchers and activists: the OHS Section of the American Public Health Association.   We closed out our 95th year with the association adopting three progressive policy resolutions and electing Linda Rae Murray, MD, MPH as the next APHA president. 

First, CONGRATULATIONS! to the OHS Section’s own Linda Rae Murray who is a 30-year member of APHA—-the largest and most diverse public health organization in the world.  Dr. Murray is the chief medical officer for the Cook County (IL) Dept of Public Health, a general internist who practices at a south side Chicago community health center, and on the faculty at the Univ of Illinois Chicago in the Dept of Occupational and Environmental Health.

Linda Rae’s platform resonates with many of us in the OHS community: 

“If  we are going to make progress toward a healthy nation we have to overcome those issues which divide us: issues of racism, immigrant rights, gender discrimination and workers’ rights.  It is only through unity that we will have the strength to make the changes our country needs.”

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As I mentioned in my earlier post about the OHS Section’s Award Luncheon, the section’s musical skit is one of the most eagerly anticipated events for worker health and safety advocated attending the APHA annual meeting. This year, vocal and lyrical master Luis Vazquez, accompanied by the OHS Thespian Collective, awed the audience with a new version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” that invites us to envision a future of safe and healthy workplaces. He’s given us permission to post the lyrics here, and you can find an instrumental version of the song here, in case you’re moved to perform the piece for your co-workers, friends, and family members.

Imagine Health & Safety
Lyrics By Luis Vazquez, 2009, All Rights Reserved
Sung to the tune of Imagine, by John Lennon

Imagine no more injuries
Or ‘blame the worker’ schemes
No workers killed in explosions
Or mangled in machines
Imagine all the workers
Going home in one piece!

Imagine no exposures
To chemicals that kill
No more carpal tunnel
Or other ergonomic ills
Imagine all the workers
Working without pain!

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by Andrew Schneider, cross-posted from Cold Truth

At last, the world’s oldest public health organization has joined the funeral dirge-paced parade to ban asbestos in the U.S.  The 50,000-member American Public Health Association adopted a resolution at its annual meeting this week calling on Congress to pass legislation banning the manufacture, sale, export, or import of asbestos-containing products including products in which asbestos is a contaminant.  Asbestos, a known carcinogen, annually claims the lives of more than 10,000 Americans.

“With this new policy, APHA is joining the World Federation of Public Health Associations and other international organizations calling for a global ban on asbestos mining, and manufacturing, and the dangerous practice of exporting asbestos containing products,” said Dr. Celeste Monforton, chair of the organization’s Occupational Health and Safety section.  “As the World Health Organization noted in 2006, the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos related diseases is to stop using all types of asbestos.”

Asbestos was banned in the U.S. briefly in 1989, after the Environmental Protection Agency conducted a ten-year study, spent millions in research and accumulated 100,000 pages of justification. The agency announced that it would phase out and ban virtually all products containing asbestos.  But the fledgling ban lasted less than two years.  The well-funded Canadian Asbestos industry challenged the ban.  The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court acknowledged that “asbestos is a potential carcinogen at all levels of exposure,” but nevertheless threw out the life-saving legislation over technical issues. 

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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.

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It’s a tradition for APHA’s Occupational Health & Safety section to invite top officials from OSHA, MSHA, and NIOSH to a “Talking Heads” session at each APHA annual meeting. The session “The Future of Occupational Safety and Health in the Obama Administration” featured Jordan Barab, Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA; John Howard, Director of NIOSH; and Gregory Wagner, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy of MSHA. The room was packed with an audience eager to hear how this new leadership plans to address worker health and safety issues that haven’t been getting enough attention in recent years.

John Howard, who was also head of NIOSH for several years during the Bush administration, characterized the change in administrations by saying that “it’s gratifying to be in the position of having your science wanted.” He emphasized that green jobs are not enough, but that “green and safe is what we need.” He also reminded the audience that there are many hurdles that have been put in place over the previous decades by the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government, so progress will still take lots of time and effort.

Greg Wagner told the crowd that it’s time to put the “H” of “health” back in MSHA, and noted that part of the reason the regulatory process takes so long is that there are many opportunities for public involvement. He called for greater participation from miners and urged the audience members to get involved, too.

Jordan Barab rattled off a list of things OSHA has already done: fined BP a record $87 million, issued several egregious violations (five will be issued by the end of the month, compared to four during all of last year), and ended the quotas for alliances and voluntary protection programs, to allow the agency to focus on enforcement. He said OSHA will be hiring more staff to deal with inspections, standards, and whistleblowing; holding a conference on immigrant workers; and turning attention to the problems of violence, stress, and fatigue.

The audience had a lot of questions and comments about how the agencies should go about rulemaking, enforcement, and recruiting the next generation of occupational health and safety professionals:

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As is always the case at APHA, there are far too many fascinating presentations for one person to see – so I hope those of you who are also here in Philly will add comments about some of the sessions you’re attending and what you’re learning. Yesterday, I attended a session on health and safety in healthcare, which brought up some populations and scenarios that are too easily overlooked when discussing healthcare workers’ health and safety:

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I feel like I’m pretty up on the push for green jobs (creating jobs in the building and installation of wind turbines, construction of energy-efficient buildings, etc.) but this morning at the APHA meeting, I learned something about the occupational health angle of this movement. At a session from the Blue-Green Alliance, Walter Jones of the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America and TJ Lentz of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health spoke about making green jobs safe jobs.

So far, it seems that the shift toward greener buildings hasn’t done much to make the construction or maintenance of these places safe for workers. (One positive point is that the use of safer paints and solvents can reduce workers’ as well as residents’ exposure to fumes.) Designers of buildings don’t generally pay much attention to the ways that their plans will affect the way workers interact with them, and design schools don’t tend to include occupational health and safety in their curricula. Jones noted that between 1990 and 2003, 42% of all US construction-related fatalities were linked to design.

Problems include a lack of anchor points for workers to tie off to when they’re working off the ground, and parapets that meet building code requirements (being at least 30 inches high) but not OSHA requirements (39 to 45 inches). When it comes to wind turbines, fall protection is also crucial, and the inside of the tower is a confined space – but designers rarely address anchor points or tower access and ventilation issues.

Occupational health and safety advocates are working to get safety issues on designers’ radar. The American Association of Safety Engineers has begun working on a standard to protect workers involved in windpower facilities, and NIOSH runs a Prevention Through Design program. As we all throw our support behind green jobs, we should make sure that “green” includes worker health and safety.

At the opening general session of the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting, I learned a few things about Philadelphia, where this year’s meeting is happening. Philadelphia opened the nation’s first public hospital, nursing school, and medical school, and it boasts the highest childhood immunization rate in the nation and the greatest proportion of workers who walk to work. Also, given that water is the theme for this year’s meeting, it’s fitting to note that Philly was the home of the nation’s first municipal waterworks.

Speakers at the opening session set the tone for an ambitious and optimistic meeting (with some of that optimism probably due to the House’s passage of healthcare legislation last night):

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