Longtime APHA member Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH, is co-author of the sixth annual “The Year in U.S. Occupational Health & Safety,” which was released on Labor Day. Monforton previously served in the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Mine Safety and Health Administration and has twice been appointed to serve on independent teams investigating fatal coal mining disasters in West Virginia. Today, she serves as director of the Beyond OSHA Project and is a lecturer at Texas State University. Below, she talks with Public Health Newswire about the new Labor Day report — or “yearbook,” as she calls it — and the current state of workers’ rights and safety.

Celeste Monforton

Worker safety advocate and APHA member Celeste Monforton

Q: Who’s the audience for the annual occupational health and safety yearbook? And how do you hope readers will use the yearbook?

A: We create the yearbook with a wide audience in mind, from workers who are on the front lines of making change to the researchers who investigate the impacts of working conditions on health. Similar to a high school yearbook, we also prepare it to celebrate the people and events that influenced occupational health and safety over the past 12 months. Colleagues tell us they look back at the previous five editions to remind themselves of what’s been accomplished and what still needs to be done.

Q: Can you identify two or three examples from the yearbook that you think are emblematic of the current state of occupational health and safety in the U.S.?

A: Overall, there’s much greater public recognition of the impact of work on people’s health. People used to think of occupational health and safety, or OHS, as something reserved for the experts who know how to safeguard dangerous machinery or use specialized equipment to monitor indoor air quality. But now we see groups standing together to demand better wages and paid sick leave, as well as discussing the ways that long work hours, shift work and just-in-time scheduling affects people’s health, well-being and their ability to care for themselves and their loved ones. These are particularly ripe public health topics that fall under today’s OHS umbrella.

Where people work and the kind of work they do has changed a lot in the last few decades. Today, U.S. employment is dominated by service jobs in retail, food service and health care. More of these jobs are contracted through staffing companies, which confounds who exactly is responsible for workplace safety. We profile, for example, research from Chicago and Southern California involving black and Filipino women employed in the booming, but low-wage, homecare industry as well as news investigations into New Jersey’s so-called “temp towns,” where workers say discrimination and unsafe working conditions are rampant.

Regrettably, exploitation of workers by some employers and their political cronies remains a serious problem in the U.S. Public health advocates, worker groups and their allies continue their battles to preserve hard-fought wage and labor protections — protections intrinsically connected to the social determinants of health. Readers of the yearbook will quickly recognize those themes — they are at the heart of why OHS is a part of public health and vice versa.

The Year in U.S. Occupational Health & Safety

“The Year in U.S. Occupational Health & Safety,” a report by Kim Krisberg and Celeste Monforton, chronicles the events that have influenced worker health and safety over the prior 12 months.

Q: The yearbook highlights a number of troubling setbacks in the field, from regulatory rollbacks to making it harder to access worker fatality data. But the news isn’t all bad. What are some of the particularly encouraging events of the past year?

A: It’s been our tradition to release the yearbook on Labor Day. It covers the 12 prior months, so we were able to include some of the Obama administration’s final accomplishments to advance worker safety protections. These include several new regulations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, including one on the carcinogen beryllium.

We continue to be amazed by the outstanding investigative reporting coming from national and regional journalists. All of us in public health recognize the value in having reporters amplify our issues, and there were great in-depth stories published in the last year by NPR, USA Today, The Atlantic, ProPublica and many others. It’s really encouraging to see such a journalistic appetite for stories that expose unsafe and unfair working conditions — stories that honor workers by printing the names and faces of those who’ve lost their lives on the job. We devote a full section in the yearbook to profiling those stories and acknowledging the contribution of reporters.

Q: The yearbook notes that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is facing significant budget cuts. How important is this agency to occupational health research? What would a budget cut mean for worker safety on the ground?

A: President Trump has proposed cutting NIOSH’s budget by 40 percent, down to just $200 million. This specifically eliminates funding for researchers at universities and other institutions across the U.S. These are the individuals — many trained in public health — who engage directly with worker groups to identify the most significant risks of occupational injury and illness and then evaluate effective interventions. Take a peek at the yearbook’s research section and appendix. It illustrates the role of NIOSH funding in supporting independent researchers who characterize and address the impact of the work environment on health. Despite the administration’s claim, no other institution exists to fill that role. Such deep cuts will devastate the field of OHS research.

Q: What are the biggest challenges for worker health and safety advocates moving forward? Is there a particular role for state and local public health?

A: Occupational health and safety advocates have shifted their attention from Washington, D.C., to prevention campaigns at the state and local levels. And they’re seeing the fruit of that labor. Last year, for example, groups in Boston mobilized following the death of two construction workers. They had prevention on their mind when they pushed for a new policy. Now, Boston has one of the strictest laws in the country that denies city permits to companies with poor safety records. Similarly, public health and labor groups in California were instrumental in securing two new worker safety laws in the last year. One provides new rules to protect health care workers from workplace violence — health care workers face one of the highest risks of workplace violence of any sector. The other addresses the hazards to workers and communities from catastrophic events at oil refineries. These and more are featured in the yearbook and would have been impossible to secure nationally given the political climate in Washington, D.C.

Download the 2017 “The Year in U.S. Occupational Health & Safety.”