Sterling Honeycutt - 2013 Scholarship WinnerWhat Role Has American Labor Played In Health And Safety In The Workplace And How Can It Be Improved Upon?

by Sterling Honeycutt 

   Throughout the years, my parents union has fought for accidental death insurance, medical insurance, joint health and safety committees, safety representative positions, and training curriculum and development contract language.
   Their unions history is rich in fighting for the safety of their members. The oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW) former Legislative Director, Health and Safety Director, Vice-President and Secretary-Treasurer, Tony Mazzocchi, played a key role in the occupational and environmental health movements and the struggle for workers’ rights. He was a driving force in the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and Process Safety Management (PSM). (Leopold, 2007) The OCAW is now the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union (USW).
   Within the workers represented by the USW, every 10.8 days a worker is injured or killed on the job. These accidents and events promulgate the writing of new standards to the OSH Act. Before issuing a permanent standard, OSHA must find that significant risks exist in the workplace and that a new standard will reduce or eliminate those risks. The development of 29 CFR 1910.119: Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals, was based on lessons learned from a series of tragic events, among them Flixborough (1974), Seveso (1976), and Bhopal (1984) and the fear that unless there were significant improvements in chemical process safety, an “American Bhopal” would probably happen.
   A series of serious releases of highly hazardous chemicals from a plant at Institute, WV, in August, 1985, indicated to OSHA that a program was needed to examine the industrial practicality for the prevention of disastrous releases and the mitigation of the effects of non-preventable releases. The primary result of this program was the determination by OSHA that a comprehensive inspection approach was needed which would evaluate both physical conditions and management systems. This result was the genesis of OSHA’s process safety management standard. The OSHA process safety management standard was formally proposed on July 17, 1990, and became effective on May 26, 1992. (Bethea, Unknown)
   Refinery workers across the nation are still being injured and/or killed on the job. The findings of the USW Refinery Process Safety Survey document that critical process safety deficiencies are endemic within the industry and that many mirror those found at BP Texas City in March 2005. (Tony Mazzocchi Center, 2007)
   But even when legislation is enacted to protect workers, there are not enough inspectors to ensure that businesses are conforming to the laws. The fines OSHA can impose are minimalistic at best; the reiterate that a human life is worth nothing. OSHA has not only seen a decrease in the average monetary penalty over the years but has also decreased the percentage of citations that are issued per inspection. Those statistics can be directly attributed to the amount of inspectors at OSHA and the decline in the amount of hours they spend during each inspection.
   Union based training can make a difference in promoting work place safety and health. From my experience, unions can improve the safety and health of their members by engaging in peer education. Peer education is where people from similar backgrounds educate and inform each other about issues. One reason why peer training helps promote a safe work environment is a person’s willingness to hear what their fellow workers have to say and to follow their lead. We know that they understand the task at hand, because they have literally been in the shoes of their fellow workers. Many people feel more at ease talking with a co-worker about safety because they do not fear discipline. Because they share similar experiences, they are better placed to provide honest information. Union members can benefit from relevant information delivered by fellow workers with whom they can identify and build positive relationships. When faced with this attitude a worker is more inclined to follow the directive of their union brother. Peer education can help unions to create a caring and safe environment that promotes the safety of all its members.



Tony Mazzocchi Center, U.S. (2007). Beyond Texas City: The State of Process Safety in the Unionized U.S. Oil Refining Industry. Pittsburg: United Steelworkers.

Leopold, Les (2007). The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.