The first Monday in September is dedicated to Labor Day, which honors the dedication and sacrifice made by today’s workers, as well as the sacrifices of the workers who came before us.
Looking at a timeline of the 150 years leading up to now, one thing becomes apparent: the Labor Day celebrations we enjoy today, filled with picnics and family time, are the result of the blood, sweat and tears of millions of workers throughout the last century and a half and beyond.
From mining disasters that claimed hundreds of lives, to construction work that triggered an epidemic of silicosis among workers on a bridge project, to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, workers have paid the price of lax workplace safety and health practices with their lives.
I’m not an EHS professional. I’m a journalist and content director. But over the years, especially as I was growing up, worker safety has been an important issue for me. My father was a union organizer for the meatpackers in Minnesota and my grandfather was a miner in a West Virginia coal mine. They told stories over the dinner table of workplace safety and process failures that resulted in “blood on the floor,” i.e., the death of a worker or workers. Both my father and my grandfather suffered lasting consequences of their work: my grandfather was forced into retirement by Black Lung Disease, and my father was hospitalized twice following workplace incidents caused when health and safety rules and OSHA standards were not followed.
My career choice was informed by the choices of these two men who were so influential in my life. First of all, I knew I wanted an office job where the worst thing that could happen to me as a result of my work was a musculoskeletal injury or the proverbial paper cut. Second, I knew that productive, safe workplaces with zero injuries and illnesses are not some pie-in-the-sky dream, but a realistic, achievable goal we all can reach together.
With a few exceptions, workers are safer today than ever before. Advancements in personal protective equipment – making it stronger, lighter and more comfortable to wear – has resulted in thousands fewer injuries over the years. Technological advances such as software platforms that gather data and serve it to us in dashboards allow us to track leading indicators that can prevent the injuries we track as lagging indicators. Wearables help us detect if workers are being exposed to hazardous fumes or are overheating while performing their jobs. For a dozen years or more, we’ve been on the right track and heading toward fewer and fewer occupational injuries and illnesses each year.
COVID-19 Changed Everything, Or Did It?
All of the sudden, workplace safety and health protocols have had to change. Frequent disinfection of surfaces, the wearing of respirators or masks, temperature readings, social distancing and remote work are just a few of the changes workers and workplaces have experienced in the past 6 or 7 months. Communications with workers increased as new protocols and timelines needed to be shared. Safety and production functions had to work closely together to ensure the workplace met new protocols and state or national guidelines.
The mental health of workers became increasingly important, as we struggle with safety and economic concerns and in some cases, feelings of isolation and depression. Distraction has become an issue in the workplace, as has increased drug and alcohol use, with 40 percent of American adults reporting some mental health or substance abuse issue related to the pandemic, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the report, 11% of adults reported contemplating suicide during the month of June, and the percentage was even higher among essential workers. According to the CDC report, the prevalence of symptoms of depression and anxiety quadrupled and tripled, respectively, compared to last year. Employers can address this new risk to worker safety by providing support and, if necessary, intervention.
Even as everything around us is changing, there is one thing we can count on: EHS professionals are hard at work, using the latest tools and technology to keep workers as safe as possible.
As Scott Gaddis, VP of Health and Safety for Intelex, writes in his blog, “The Labor of the Safety Professional,” “Celebrate the holiday, but please pause to remember the labors of the men and women you care for and the ones that came before us. It is the real significance of Labor Day.”
As he points out, he is a safety and health professional “because men and women demanded better over 150 years ago and created a path of new thinking that created a need for dedicated safety professionals.”
Download our infographic for a short history lesson about Labor Day.