Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Goodbye: The Final Curtain Comes Down

As I mentioned last night, this will be my last Confined Space post. Next week I start work at the House Education and Labor Committee. If you're on line now (9:00 - 11:00 pm EST), welcome. Please use the comments all the way down at the bottom of this post (below the last song) and "refresh" occasionally to keep up to date. (Of course, some people decided to start the party early. Check out the comments under last night's post.)

Over the past four years, I’ve written more than 2,800 posts here at Confined Space. My original goal was not just to educate people about what is happening in American workplaces, but also to put workplace safety and health into a political context. You won't read in any newspapers that if the 12 deaths at Sago last year, or the 15 deaths at the BP Texas City refinery the year before had been the only workplace fatalities on those days, those would have been good days in the American workplace. More than 15 workers are killed every day on the job in this country and a worker becomes injured or ill on the job every 2.5 seconds. The overwhelming majority of deaths, injuries and illnesses could have been easily prevented had the employers simply provided a safe workplace and complied with well-recognized OSHA regulations or other safe practices.

And you'll never learn from the evening news that we have more fish and wildlife inspectors than OSHA inspectors, or that the penalties from a chemical release that kills fish is higher than a chemical release that kills a worker. Not many are aware that workers are often afraid to complain about health and safety hazards or file a complaint with OSHA. Almost no one understands that OSHA inspections are so infrequent and penalties for endangering workers are so insignificant that there is almost no disincentive for employers to break the law. Employers are almost never criminally prosecuted for killing workers even when they knew they were violating OSHA standards.

You know these things. But most Americans – including our political leaders -- don’t have a clue. And most of this nation’s newspapers and other media aren’t helping.

And there are still far too many health and safety professionals that don’t understand that to a very great extent, who lives and who dies in the workplace is determined by politics – both power relationships in the workplace, and traditional politics that determines who controls our government. What that means is that organizing unions and electing politicians who will fight against unlimited corporate control over our regulatory agencies, our workplaces and the environment are of vital importance to protecting the health and safety of American workers.

Two events inspired me to launch this blog in March 2003. Following the deaths of the Columbia astronauts in 2002, I woke up one morning realizing that while a few workers killed in a workplace accident sometimes receive enormous media attention, most workers die alone and unnoticed by anyone except their immediate families and friends. Something had to be done to ensure that these thousands aren’t dying in vain.

The second event was the repeal of the OSHA ergonomics standard by the Republican Congress and the Bush White House. That travesty of justice taught me that if we’re going to make – and sustain -- any progress on workplace safety in this country, many more people have to understand what’s happening in American workplaces, the political context in which these tragedies occur, and the need to organize on a local and national level. Or, as Michael Silverstein wrote in his recent paper discussing the future of OSHA, "political change must precede policy change.”

When I started Confined Space in March 2003, it was all about me – a way to vent, which I needed (thanks to our President and his cronies), a reason to write (or rant) -- which I enjoy (and will miss) -- and a way to keep in touch with friends and colleagues who I was afraid I’d lose track of.

But based on the mail I get from people, Confined Space became much more – a source of much-needed news about what’s happening in our workplaces and government agencies and a voice for those feeling politically frustrated. But most important – and most unexpected -- it became a way for family members and loved ones of those lost to the workplace to find meaning in the death of their loved ones, a voice for their anger and a constructive direction to fight the system that took their loved ones away. And perhaps it even provided some ideas and tools that they could use to wage their struggle.

Writing this blog became a learning experience for me as well. Not just that it forced me to keep up with what was happening in the world of workplace safety, but the Weekly Toll (thanks Tammy) and the thoughtful and angry notes and comments I received from the families and friends of those killed in the workplace, brought me closer to the human tragedies faced by thousands of American families every year. Confined Space provided a place for them to tell their stories, stories that are almost never heard in our newspapers, magazines, radio or TV. And with that came a renewed sense of meaning and inspiration -- raw energy – to challenge the low priority that the politicians and media in this country give to workplace safety and workers’ health and lives.

But at the same time, I’m tired -- bone tired – not just from lack of sleep (I didn’t have the luxury that some bloggers enjoy -- being able to blog at work), but also from writing the same sad stories – with different names and details – over and over again. More and more frequently I’ve gotten the sense that I’m repeating myself; I’m not sure I have anything new to say anymore. And maybe there isn’t really anything new to say; maybe it’s always the same basic story; only the names and dates change. And so, although it’s incredibly hard to think about leaving this behind, this is an opportunity to move beyond writing to facilitate change.

Before I go, there are a few people I need to thank. Actually, there are hundreds that I need to thank, but a few require special mention – particularly Jonathan Bennett at NYCOSH, Rory O’Neill at Hazards and Tony Oppegard for keeping me supplied with news and perspective that I might otherwise have missed. Journalists Ken Ward at the Charleston Gazette, Andrew Schneider at the Baltimore Sun, Steve Franklin at the Chicago Tribune and David Barstow at the NY Times deserve lots of credit for going the extra miles to dig out the stories behind the stories and setting a standard that every journalist should strive to live up to.

But most of all I want to thank the families -- the wives, husbands, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers of those chewed up and spit out by the system of work in this country. The courage, creativity and resolve displayed by Tammy Miser, Coit Smith, Mary Vivenzi, Irene Warnock, Misty Plante, Michelle Marts, Becky Foster, Barb Parker, Holly Shaw, Sharon Nichols, Kelly Heilert, Michelle Lewis, Robin Harpster, Adam Turem, Donna Puleio Spadaro, Patience Buck-Clarry, Melissa King, Phyllis Oliver and Betsy Shonkwiler to name just a very few who have shared their sorrow, their anger and their energy, have nourished me with the inspiration and fuel to carry on through the late nights and early mornings.

And, of course, I need to thank my wife, Jessie, and the kids (Nicole, Madeleine and William) for giving me a far longer leave of absence from many familial duties than anyone really deserves.

Finally, I'd be remiss is I didn't thank the Bush administration appointees, many Congresspersons and Senators, and scores of negligent employers for ensuring that there wasn't a single day over the past four years that I didn't have plenty to write about.

I do have one major disappointment, though – that this blog is going out childless, without issue. I had hoped for some offspring. You know, a few similarly crazy people out there who would say “Hey, this is a good idea, but he’s missing a bunch of stuff,” or “What a clutz. I can say this better,” or “He’s full of shit. Listen to me." So that when I passed on, there would be two, five, a dozen workplace safety blogs to carry on.

But don’t despair. I’ve been having conversations with people about continuing some parts of Confined Space, and Tammy will continue the Weekly Toll from another (to be announced) location. The Pump Handle will be carrying on with some of the more newsy parts of Confined Space. To the extent other blogs start picking up some of this work, I’ll announce it here and in mailings to my list. And the archives will remain as a resource.

So, has this blog had any impact on improving the conditions for workplace safety in this country? Maybe. Enough? Not nearly. Since I started this blog, the AFL-CIO has dismantled its safety and health department, OSHA has issued only one new, weak standard (under court order) and expanded its voluntary programs at the expense of enforcement. Immigrant fatalities continue to grow, coal mine fatalities more than doubled last year, the Bush administration continues to appoint political cronies and union busters to agencies entrusted with ensuring workers lives and well-being and Congressional oversight became a thing of the past -- until now. (On the other hand, when I started this blog, President Bush’s favorable ratings were in the 70’s and Republicans held both Houses of Congress. Now he’s in the low 30’s, the Dems have taken charge of Congress, and they’ve hired me.) The real test of success is how many more workplace safety activists exist today than existed four years ago.

What comes next? I know what comes next for me. But what about you? What needs to be done and how are we going to do it? Chew on that for a while.

As journalist Bill Moyers wrote in a recent must-read article in The Nation,
The eight-hour day, the minimum wage, the conservation of natural resources, free trade unions, old-age pensions, clean air and water, safe food--all these began with citizens and won the endorsement of the political class only after long struggles and bitter attacks. Democracy works when people claim it as their own.
And that goes for workplace safety as well.

In 1970, Congress passed, and President Nixon signed a radical new law promising
To assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women
In other words, a safe workplace became a right, not a privilege to be enjoyed only when a company is making a good profit. Thirty-five years later, that promise not only remains unfulfilled, but has taken several major steps backward over the past several years.

And to quote myself at the 2004 APHA Occupational Health Section Awards luncheon:
We need to make it clear that the right to a safe workplace wasn’t bestowed upon us by concerned politicians or employers who were finally convinced that “Safety Pays.” The right to a safe workplace was won only after a long and bitter fight by workers, unions and public health advocates. It was soaked in the blood of hundreds of thousands of coal miners, factory and construction workers. And the current movement to transform the agency into nothing but a coordinator of voluntary alliances is a betrayal of that promise and those lives.
Hopefully in my new job, I can help to restore the system of checks and balances that our constitution provides to make sure that our government does what it’s supposed to do.

Anyway, as I said. I’m not disappearing, just moving into a different dimension. But before going, I have a couple of favors to ask. Please stay in touch. Save my e-mail address I’ll need your information and inspiration more than ever.

Do me just one more big favor: keep informed, stay angry and keep raising hell.

OK, I’m out of here. It’s your turn now. Hasta la vista, baby. Flights of angels sing me to my rest. And don't be sad. We’ll always have Paris.

-- Jordan

P.S. Like any good union meeting, this blog shouldn’t end without a song. So, everyone, let’s all join hands, click once or twice on the picture below and sing along with Pete and the Weavers. After all, when you really think about it, what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?


Tammy Miser: Weekly Toll

Mike Hall: AFL-CIO Now

Mick Arran: Dispatch From the Trenches

Revere: Effect Measure

Cervantes: Stayin Alive

Michael Fox: Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Workday Minnesota

James Governor: Monkchips