Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Happy 3rd Blogiversary To Confined Space


Today is the third Blogiversary of Confined Space. In blog years, I’d say that puts me somewhere in late middle age (far, far older than I am in “person years.”) If anyone had told me three years ago that I would still be doing this (or that I would still be doing this and still be married), I’d say they crazy, nutso, one beer short of a sixpack.

This year’s anniversary coincides with the finals of the Koufax awards. The most gratifying thing about the Koufax awards (win or lose) is that people not only vote for you, but they write comments. Now, as you know, I encouraged people to vote for Confined Space, and to leave messages about what they liked about it. One could argue that I was fishing for complements. But if I was fishing, it was for trout; what I caught was Moby Dick. Thanks, when the night gets late and the hours long, your appreciation means a lot.

Although I was overwhelmed with the outpouring of appreciation, what hit me most was the hole in the health and safety movement that Confined Space seems to have filled for people over the past three years – a hole that most of us weren’t even aware existed.

There needs to be a place that really pulls together in one place everything that’s happening to workers while they’re at work. Few people, aside from those of us who do this for a living (or a hobby), or who have been “drafted” by a personal tragedy, are aware of the carnage that still plagues American workplaces, the ineffectiveness of government enforcement, the inadequacy of health and safety standards, the apathy of our elected representatives, and the hostility of the business community. Nor are people aware that the impact of the political process on the safety of everyone’s workplace.

Happily, I haven't had to do all of this completely myself. Even though I do most of the writing (with the major exception of Tammy Miser’s invaluable contributions with the Weekly Toll), this has been somewhat of a group effort. Although I have automated Google search, much of the material that I write about is sent to me by all of you out there who keep me supplied with far more material than I can ever cover. That, and the feedback I get – both in the comments, and privately, keep me thinking.

But it takes more than good material and anger to keep a blogger going; it also takes inspiration. It seems that every time I start thinking about giving this up so that I can start sleeping more, reading good books and watching lousy T.V., I get an e-mail from someone whose found their way to Confined Space, whose husband, wife, partner, father, mother, son or daughter was killed in a needless, preventable workplace “accident,” for which the employer paid a relatively small fine, even though she or he knew (or should have known) that workers were being place in hazardous situations. Their lives are forever changed, a part of them irreplaceably gone.

Even worse, their loss is rarely acknowledged or sufficiently recognized by society. If they’re lucky, there may be a short news report that rarely mentions what caused the “accident,” what OSHA standards might have been ignored, the history of the employers past citations, or interviews with other workers who may have warned of unsafe conditions. Readers are often left with the impression that the tragedy was “just one of those unfortunate things,” a “freak” accident, or even an unavoidable “act of God” Even worse, the victim’s name is often not mentioned, pending notification of family. By the time that’s done, the media has lost interest and moved on to the next robbery, traffic accident or missing blonde in Aruba. End of story.

Mostly, they’re not union members and don’t have a COSH group in the area. Many live in rural areas, and too many are immigrants who don’t even have family here. What has been missing for the families, and what they seem to find in Confined Space, is an outlet for their anger and frustration, a confirmation that their loss didn’t have to happen and a feeling for the political context in which all of this is happening. What I’d also like to provide is a constructive outlet for their emotions: a local or national struggle to join in where they can make sure that the loss of their loved one may not have been completely in vain, that their efforts can contribute to preventing similar tragedies from happening to other families.

And, to a certain extent it’s working. This is an excerpt from a note I received today from Michelle Lewis, whose step-father was killed in a trench collapse:

When I felt no one else was listening or cared about the death of my step-dad in a trench, you did. Through your passion and commitment, you gave me a voice and I will be eternally grateful for that. After you posted my letter and upon learning from your work, I felt more empowered to see the connection between policy and my personal loss. I've contacted my state officials and have encouraged them all to use your blog as a resource for truth, prevention and justice.

Things like that makes it all worthwhile.

Unfortunately, organized campaigns in which people can involve themselves are few and far between, and this is one of my biggest frustrations. Several larger cities in the country have COSH groups that are active in local issues and national issues and involve families of workplace victims. But there’s not much out there, especially on a national level. There are bills in both the Senate and the House that would raise the penalties for workplace crime, but their mostly token efforts backed by few co-sponsors, with no hope of getting anywhere in this political environment.

The answer, of course, is changing the political environment. And by making the connections between workplace death, illness and injury and politics, some of the familys’ energy and emotions can be channeled into the political process which may, in the medium term, bear some fruit in better enforcement, improved standards and meaningful penalties.

We’re now in an election year. Workplace safety issues are rarely an issue in national or even local elections. After Sago, however, this year has the potential of being different, at least in certain parts of the country, if the issue is framed properly. Some of us are also looking for ways to tie the endless tragedy contained in each Weekly Toll with local elections. There are lots of ideas out there; all that’s needed is several more hours in each day, and more money. With the demise of the AFL-CIO’s Safety and Health Department, the prospects for putting significantly more resources into political organizing around safety and health issues seem less than probable.
But I digress.

So where are we, how far have we come? On the first anniversary of Confined Space, in 2004, I wrote the following:

Think of what's happened since Confined Space hit the web. One year ago today, George Bush was president, OSHA was sinking into irrelevancy and still hadn't issued its Tuberculosis or Payment for Personal Protective Equipment standards, most public employees weren't covered by OSHA, immigrant workers were dying and being injured in record numbers, American soldiers were dying in Iraq and weapons of mass destruction had yet to be found.
OK, moving right along…

Two years ago I boasted of having 40,000 hits and 70,000 page views in the past year. I was averaging around 200 visits a day, 1500 a week. Today, I’m averaging 1200 visits and 2000 page views a day.

But who’s doing all that reading. I think I’m reaching most health and safety activists. I’m also reaching a lot of health and safety professionals who find Confined Space on a Google Search. I occasionally get a message from them saying they’ve found a lot of good information year, but it’s too bad there’s so much politics.

My main target when I started this was workers do dangerous work and find Confined Space an important resource. I’m not sure much has changed from what I wrote two years ago:
I had fantasies that every organized -- and lots of unorganized workers would be avid readers. I'm still around twenty to thirty million hits short. Confined Space has been linked on a number of local and international union websites, although it's becoming increasingly clear to me that most workers don't come home and surf the web every night (or at least they don't surf their union's webpages much). In fact most of my readership comes during weekdays, presumably at work.

And the workers who do the most dangerous work probably have the least daytime access to the internet.

Aside from Google searches, links on websites or other blogs, and occasional media stories, the main way we’re going to expand the circulation and potential impact of Confined Space is with your help. Forward it around, send me e-mail addresses of those who might be interested, download this flyer and take it to conferences.

So, what does the future hold? Who knows? Will there be a fourth Blogiversary? Some days I think I won’t last another week, some days I think I would be happy just doing this all day long (emphasis on day) -- if I didn’t have to make money.

So, thanks again for all the support and kind words.

And, by the way, if anyone wants to try out as a blogger-in-training, let me know.