A New Landscape

AIHce 2015 Speakers Grapple with the Changing Nature of Work

The first-ever AIHce Welcome Party attracted large crowds to Salt Lake City’s Gallivan Plaza on Sunday, May 31, for catered food, live music, and adult beverages. The outdoor entertainment proved to be a popular way to open the premier conference for industrial hygienists and occupational health and safety professionals, who enjoyed relaxing and networking in the mild Utah evening.
Two blocks west, at the Salt Palace Convention Center, the conference proper got underway the next morning with an engaging presentation by Alison Levine, who highlighted the parallels between the workplace and business environments and the world of extreme adventure. Levine’s energy and humor set the stage for four days of education on the latest issues in worker health protection, while the lectures and general sessions revolved around themes of leadership, the challenges presented by global supply chains, and the need to increase industrial hygiene capacity worldwide.
Opening Session Speaker Alison Levine signs copies of her book On the Edge at the AIHA booth.
A LEADER IN THE EXTREME Speaking to a capacity crowd, Levine discussed her role as captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition. The group of five set out on their two-month adventure in 2002. To acclimatize their bodies to the extreme altitude, Everest climbers are required to embark on a series of ascents and descents between the Everest base camp at 18,000 feet and other camps situated farther up the 29,000-foot peak. Constantly reversing course caused some psychological distress for the team, Levine said: “You have to remember that even though you’re going backwards, you’re still making progress.” She advised attendees to adopt a similar perspective when dealing with professional challenges. “For whatever reason, we believe that progress has to go in one direction,” Levine said. “Don’t look at backtracking as losing ground. Backing up is not the same as backing down.”
The team’s acceptance of that principle was tested just a few hundred feet from the summit, when a storm set in, severely limiting visibility. In those conditions, when the team had used most of its supplies and taking a single step required five to ten deep breaths of Everest’s vanishingly thin air, the team had to choose either to carry on or end their expedition. They decided that the conditions were too treacherous to continue.
“Turning around was harder than continuing on,” Levine said, since the team was so close to its goal. But “the key to surviving is you have to be able to take action based on the situation at the time, and not based on some plan. If the conditions aren’t right, you turn around, you cut your losses, and you walk away.
“One person’s bad decision can bring down an entire team.”
Although the team did not reach the summit of Everest, Levine decided to try again. Spurred by the memory of a deceased friend to whom she dedicated her climb, Levine summited Everest on May 24, 2010. But in many ways she looks back more fondly on her first, unsuccessful attempt. “It’s not about spending a few minutes at the summit,” Levine said. “It’s about the lessons you learn on the way up and what you do to be better going forward.”
Jeffrey S. Lee Lecturer Garrett D. Brown discussed offshoring and global supply chains.
HELPING WORKERS PROTECT THEMSELVES Before a standing-room-only crowd at the Jeffrey S. Lee Lecture on Monday afternoon, Garrett D. Brown, MPH, CIH, explained how the off-shoring of manufacturing over the past two decades has transferred occupational health and safety hazards to developing countries that are underprepared to address them. According to Brown, one effect of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement was to make the U.S. economy heavily reliant on global supply chains. Ultimately, Brown said, these chains produce factories where workers are subjected to very long hours, unsafe and unhealthy conditions, physical abuse, and sexual harassment.
“Suppliers are constantly being squeezed,” Brown said, adding that last-minute design and order changes, the use of short-term contracts, and the lack of financial support for OHS programs exacerbate the problems of protecting workers in foreign-owned factories. “Sustainable improvements are impossible without resolving the big-picture issues. And having ever more elaborate occupational health and safety management systems will not address underlying problems.”
Brown, an AIHA Fellow, has been active in the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network (MHSSN) since its establishment in 1993. MHSSN comprises volunteers from 400 occupational health and safety professionals working to create safer and healthier conditions for workers in foreign-owned factories in Mexico, Central America, Indonesia, China, and Bangladesh. One of MHSSN’s goals is to build local capacity for OHS and enable workers to play a role in identifying hazards, investigating incidents, and evaluating and verifying hazard abatement.
Brown described MHSSN trainings as “participatory and interactive.” MHSSN uses hazard maps to help employees identify hazards in a factory through drawings. Another frequently used tool is the “tox t-shirt,” which depicts human organs to help workers understand routes of exposure and the ways chemicals affect their bodies.
The provision of native-language materials and hands-on activities also helps build workers’ skills and self-confidence, Brown said. He stressed that workers can play essential roles in improving health and safety if they are provided training, authority, and time. There is a need for a new business model for global supply chains, for governments with the political will and resources to act effectively, and for auditing that is transparent, Brown said, but he called for workers to be “front and center and an integral part of these health and safety programs.”
The June 2 General Session addressed the tendency of modern employers to “shed” aspects of their business.
FIXING THE FISSURED WORKPLACE At the general session on Tuesday, June 2, two high-ranking officials with the U.S. Department of Labor discussed the health and safety implications of the changing nature of work. David Weil, administrator of OSHA’s Wage and Hour Division, and Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, addressed the challenges of enforcement in the age of the “fissured” workplace—a term that signifies the tendency of modern employers to “shed” aspects of their business that do not fit their core competencies. Once fissuring starts in a business, it tends to continue, Weil explained, with the “shed” activities breaking into even smaller entities that are then contracted and sub-contracted to other businesses.
The fissured model can make a business more attractive to its investors and customers. But when employers identify worker protection as a non-essential activity that can be shed, its effects harm workers and complicate the enforcement of health and safety regulations. Barab identified the cell tower industry as one in which multiple layers of contractors have made it difficult for OSHA to determine which employer is ultimately responsible for protecting workers. While the workers themselves may be employees of Verizon or AT&T, the towers are owned by other companies.
“Who actually is responsible depends on the situation, and it can be a puzzle for us to figure that out,” Barab said.
Weil and Barab agreed that some companies are using the fissured model cynically, as a way to protect themselves from liability and avoid legal responsibility for workers’ health and safety. In cases where a violation has occurred but OSHA cannot establish a company’s legal responsibility to protect workers, the agency is turning to alternative ways to influence behavior, Barab said. For example, when OSHA distributes press releases announcing citations, it will identify the company at the top of the chain, even if that company is not the one being cited.
Some companies respond to this kind of public pressure in order to protect their business, Barab said: “They don’t want their brands sullied. Once we show that they’re at risk for that, they’re ready to come to the table.”
Weil argued that the shedding of “non-essential” activities, if taken to an extreme, can even hurt a company’s bottom line. He questioned how such companies can accurately assess business risks: “Ultimately, is the shedding undermining the core competency or putting [the business] in a more vulnerable position?”
For Barab, OSHA’s enforcement challenges in the era of the fissured workplace stem partly from weaknesses in its foundational law. When the OSH Act was passed, many workers belonged to unions and felt empowered to exercise their rights, he said. Today, the workers most affected by the fissured workplace are temporary workers, who may have language barriers and uncertain immigration status.
“It’s a very different world,” Barab said, “and yet we’re operating under the exact same law.”
Upton Sinclair Memorial Lecturer Michael Grabell, left, receives his award from Scott Schneider of AIHA’s Social Concerns Committee.
TROUBLE IN TEMP TOWN Michael Grabell of ProPublica joined the conversation on the growth of temporary work in the U.S. during the 15th Annual Upton Sinclair Lecture for Outstanding EHS Investigative Reporting on June 2. Grabell, a staff writer and investigative reporter, recounted his experiences visiting “temp towns,” places where hopeful temporary workers gather and often endure long waits for a chance of a day’s work through a temp agency. Grabell interviewed workers, analyzed data, and examined OSHA investigative files for his recent series of articles, “Temp Land: Working in the New Economy,” which describes the hurdles blue-collar temporary workers face, including low or lost wages, lack of benefits, dangerous work, and higher rates of injury.
The temp industry was the fastest growing industry in 2013, Grabell said. He cited Bureau of Labor Statistics data that counted 2.9 million temp staffing workers across the country—the highest number and proportion of such workers in U.S. history.
“Only 36 percent of workers have a job like we think of it,” Grabell said.
Grabell noted that blue-collar temporary work hasn’t changed much since around 1960, when the documentary film “Harvest of Shame” highlighted the challenges of American migrant agricultural workers. Workers used to “shape up” in the town square; now they gather on street corners and in labor halls. Instead of riding in the backs of pick-up trucks, they cram themselves into minivans. Workers told Grabell stories about having to sit on wheel wells, crowd into trunk space, and lie on the floor of vehicles with other workers’ feet on top of them. Some women said they were forced to sit on the laps of men they didn’t know.
Temporary work remains seasonal: instead of picking strawberries and corn, today’s workers pack chocolate for Valentine’s Day and assemble barbeque grills near Memorial Day. Workers used to bunk in migrant housing; today, many temporary workers rent rooms in rundown houses.
Grabell told attendees that 40 countries around the world provide more rights to temp workers than the U.S. currently does.
“The U.S. has some of the loosest or weakest regulations compared to other countries,” he said, noting that many countries—including Argentina, South Korea, Japan, Germany, Poland, and Russia—ban temps from doing hazardous work.
Grabell hopes to see more changes in behavior and awareness surrounding this issue.
“The last time Congress had a hearing about temp work was in 1971,” Grabell said. Until the U.S. has regulations to help protect temp workers, he continued, “It’s important to get out to the community, to people who might work in these places.”
William P. Yant Lecturer Noel H. Tresider, right, with former AIHA President Allan Fleeger.
INCREASING OCCUPATIONAL HYGIENE CAPACITY During the William P. Yant Award Lecture on June 2, Noel H. Tresider, FAIOH, CIH, COH, presented sobering statistics that established an urgent, worldwide need for more certified industrial/occupational hygienists and more people with technical skills in industrial and occupational hygiene. Using a paper that was presented at AIHce 2009 by John Henshaw, CIH, as a reference point and extending the data to 2014–2015, Tresider calculated predictions of need by country.
He estimated that the world currently has about 17,000 people with OH technical skills and approximately 7,700 certified hygienists, but it would take approximately 84,000 individuals with OH technical skills and about 40,000 certified hygienists to meet the world’s need. Based on the size of their work force, the top five countries where OH technicians and certified hygienists are most needed are China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Russia.
It’s one thing to find people to fill these gaps, but Tresider addressed the key question: how would individuals receive training in the skills of the profession?
“OHTA,” he said.
OHTA, or the Occupational Hygiene Training Association, is an international training and qualifications framework that complements established programs. OHTA provides free, peer-reviewed materials; a global network of training providers; and internationally transferable modular qualifications. Tresider, who has been involved with OHTA since its inception, discussed the five levels of OHTA training, which range from awareness, a level appropriate for managers and employees, to leadership skills, a level suitable for senior hygienists.
“What we are trying to do is grow occupational hygiene capacity worldwide,” he said. “You can run this material anywhere in the world” because it doesn’t refer to country-specific regulations.
To date, Tresider said, OHTA has conducted more than 400 courses in 38 countries, and the organization’s website, OHlearning.com, has hosted more than 75,000 visitors from 199 countries. He explained that the goal is to bring industrial and occupational hygiene to a wider, international audience, which also means addressing professional certification around the world.
Tresider said that rather than trying to make a certification scheme international, it made more sense to set up a system to promote the recognition of professional certification programs already in place around the world. The system that took shape was the International Occupational Hygiene Association (IOHA) National Accreditation Recognition (NAR) Scheme, which currently includes 15 nationally recognized certification schemes.
OHTA and IOHA are working together to provide formal recognition of the qualifications that individuals gain through OHTA training, according to OHTA’s website. Organizations’ certification schemes must meet IOHA’s criteria, which evaluate each scheme’s goals, code of ethics, testing of candidates, processes for evaluation and maintenance, and more.
Looking ahead, Tresider hopes to continue to grow OH capacity around the world, particularly in developing countries.
“The future awaits,” Tresider said. “It is up to us what we do with the information I’ve passed on to you.”
KAY BECHTOLD is assistant editor of The Synergist. She can be reached at (703) 846-0737 or kbechtold@aiha.org. ED RUTKOWSKI is editor in chief of The Synergist. He can be reached at (703) 846-0734 or erutkowski@aiha.org.
AIHce 2015: Reports from Salt Lake City More Synergist coverage of AIHce 2015 is available from the AIHA website. Other articles available online include: • Toxicologist Highlights Difficulties of Using OELs for Developmental and Reproductive ToxicantsScience Symposium Addresses New EPA Reporting Requirements for Nan​omaterials​NIOSH Working to Validate Occupational Exposure Banding Process
SAVE THE DATE: AIHce Comes to Charm City In 2016, AIHce shifts back to the east coast. Mark your calendars now for AIHce 2016 at the Baltimore Convention Center, May 21–26. For more information, visit www.aihce2016.org.
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