Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Tools of The Trade For Charting Workplace Change

One of the benefits of having a bad travel day (see below) is that you get to catch up on some of the important things you haven't gotten around to.

And one of the things I've been meaning to do is review an important new publication on using workplace safety issues to organize called Tools of the Trade: A Health and Safety Handbook for Action, put together by the University of California at Berkeley's Labor Occupational Health Program.

This is a practical, "how to" resource guide for those who want to strengthen their unions and community groups while fighting to improve the health and safety of workers. How can unions and other worker advocates win this most basic of workers' rights -- the right to return home safely from a day's work? How can they engage the worker themselves in this process? How can they integrate health and safety advocacy into all aspects of their work?

I spend a lot of time writing about the politics of workplace health and safety, and far too little time writing about what needs to happen in the workplace where the rubber hits the road. And although I try to cover organizing campaigns and victories where health and safety has played an important role (like here and here), this publication discusses exactly what those workers had to do to win those battles. Tools of the Trade is more than just your regular health and safety manual full of good information about workplace hazards. It focuses on how to use the hazards that workers face every day to organize for change.

Some of the most frustrating and frequent questions I get are from workers who are facing hazards, but don't know what to do -- because their union leaders don’t know what to do or they're not union members or because OSHA's not helping or because their issues aren't covered by OSHA standards. I try to provide assistance, but this publication makes my life a lot easier. It's full of information, helpful hints and practical, useful tools like worksheets, questionnaires, tips for success and concrete step by step instructions on how to get information and train workers, not just about what's hurting them and making them sick, but how to mobilize their members to organize for change. The chapters cover issues like forming health and safety committees, organizing training, getting information, identifying problems, using OSHA, bargaining for health and safety and building community alliances.

Each chapter includes sections covering the advantages of each tool -- and the part I like best -- the challenges of using each tool -- in other words, what can go wrong. The publication is full of actual stories of how workers have used these tools to change their workplaces.

It also covers the broad scope of workplace safety, not just the traditional chemical, machine and ergonomic hazards, but "new" problems like workload and pace, lack of rest and recovery. And it doesn't shy away from the political, urging workers to fight back to save their right to a healthy and safe workplace, a right that is rapidly being stripped away.

Although the publication focuses on unionized workplaces, it doesn't neglect that fact that most American workplaces are not organized. Most of the tools it describes can be successfully used by organized or unorganized workers -- who will hopefully then go on to organize unions.

Finally, Tools of the Trade includes a chapter on building community support for health and safety struggles that reflects lessons learned from working with community organizations. It provides suggestions for establishing respectful two way working relationships -- and eventually long term trusting partnerships.

Canadian labor leader Bob Sass once said that "Knowledge isn't power, power is power." And power is necessary to effect workplace change. Tools of the Trade charts helps workers chart that course from hazards to information to power to change.

Full Disclosure: Over on the right is an advertisement for Tools of the Trade and although the ad has brought me untold riches, it has nothing to do with my praise for this publication. So click on the ad, and shell out the $25. (Tell them Confined Space sent you) You'll be glad you did.

(And while you're at it, check out LOHP's Collective Bargaining for Health and Safety—A Handbook for Unions)