Work environment improvements achieved
Armed with the information gathered, the union held several committee meetings with injured workers, union activists, and Mass COSH to make a plan to improve conditions. Most communication took place in Spanish. When needed, bilingual staff from Mass COSH and the union facilitated communication with Mass COSH technical volunteers.
Faced with organized workers supported with technical information, supervisors acknowledged the need to address several serious problems. SEIU Local 615 succeeded in winning agreement to these five priority changes:
Limit the total number of cleaning product that are used. Limit the availability of hazardous chemicals that must only be used in special circumstances.
Cleaning product should not be mixed, especially by night supervisors, but they can be diluted.
No changes can be made in products without notice to the workers.
A demonstration shelf with the correct products should be wired in place so that any product can be compared and verified by appearance of the container and liquid.
The operations that protect workers should be standardized so that health and safety training is focused on implementing clear work practices. Workers should be trained.
SEIU Local 615 achieved success in improving conditions for the 140 property services workers at this transportation center with assistance from MassCOSH and MDPH. Participatory, hands-on activities involving workers and supervisors revealed underlying problems. Action by the union informed by technical recommendations from the volunteer experts led to the needed changes. Improvements included cessation of inappropriate mixing of cleaning chemicals, elimination of several of the most hazardous products, standardizing operations, provision of demonstration containers to ensure use of the correct products, and better hazard communication.
A key improvement was reducing the number of cleaning product on-site. The workplace assessment revealed the use of 18 cleaning product rather than the 11 actually needed to perform the work. In fact, it surprised supervisors who were not aware that certain products were still in use. SEIU Local 615 acknowledged the importance of a key lesson learned from the experience of MassCOSH: assessing the product need and reducing the number of products used to those actually required for cleaning (Personal communication, Tolle Graham, MassCOSH, March 2008). In addition, the authors observed that the process improved the consciousness and skills of the union staff and members regarding the products’ occupational and environmental hazards.
Several factors were important in achieving these results. A strong union relied on the workers’ knowledge of work operations and reported health effects of products, and the workers trusted their union representatives with their answers. In other situations, such as workplaces in which workers have limited English proficiency and no union protection, workers may be so fearful that they would tolerate hazardous conditions and deteriorating health rather than lose their jobs.
The findings described in this article also highlight the importance of Spanish-speaking health and safety experts with labor experience in MassCOSH and MDPH. During the past decade, MassCOSH has prioritized recruiting staff and volunteers who not only speak the languages of Massachusetts immigrant workers, but who understand and communicate the life experiences, cultural perspectives, and economic realities of these populations. They have the unusual ability to engage workers in an open, trusting dialogue about sensitive topics, while sharing information in terms that are meaningful. They also share with the union an organizing approach to workplace safety and the commitment to build campaigns with workers over many years, often despite difficult physical and psychosocial conditions.
In this case, MassCOSH staff also provided a key link between the workers and technical consultants. These connections helped to establish trust between the labor and public health partners and identify both parties’ information needs—steps that were also identified as crucial for success in another recent health collaboration between a labor union and public health professionals.5
An additional vital component consisted of the classic public health role MDPH played: translation of surveillance data into practical recommendations for immediate change.51,52 Surveillance of work-related asthma had prompted the OHSP industrial hygienist to conduct extensive research on cleaning product, a frequently reported asthma trigger. She was able to combine the expertise she gained from the research with the workers’ knowledge to quickly produce accessible information in support of workplace improvements. This intervention was informed by surveillance and promoted the translation of science to an occupational health intervention, in an example of ethical public health practice.53,54 MDPH’s commitment to address health disparities, and the involvement of OHSP in the surveillance and prevention of work-related injuries and illnesses among low-income, minority, and immigrant workers, also provided the framework, expertise, and capacity to work with partners in the community, and prioritize action on hazards affecting a vulnerable population.
This public health approach is especially important in the types of service sector environments in which traditional techniques (e.g., air sampling and cohort studies) are both unfeasible and unlikely to produce meaningful data. The resulting production of practical policy guidance has also been previously identified as contributing to the success of this type of collaboration.6
This case study builds on an emerging tradition of health professionals supporting worker-led struggles for safer work environments in the service industries (and building on a longer, complicated history of such collaboration in mining and manufacturing55,56). A recent hotel worker study led by the union UNITE HERE resulted in contractual decreases in workload due to demonstrated associations between overwork and musculoskeletal injuries.57 Another recent collaboration between UNITE HERE and public health professionals identified exposures and health effects affecting hospitality workers that led to legislative and contractual initiatives to reduce exposure to workplace secondhand smoke and unhealthy levels of job demands.6