Photo (c) Earl Dotter

Working conditions

By Jeff Ditz

I used to think that all this 'health and safety' stuff was complicated or worthless.

What I mean is in most plants I've worked 'safety' means being told to put in your earplugs or being asked if you've got steel toes in those boots. When I organized at Honda in Ohio the workers there said the safety people were the suck-ups who got promoted off the line so they could run around telling people who'd been hurt that they had to go back on the job that hurt them. Not too helpful.

By complicated I mean that trying to figure out what some chemical with a really long unpronounceable name actually does to which body organ and when is not easy.

Well the good news, that I've learned in recent years, is that while some of it is complex, this stuff is mostly something we can figure out. And it is helpful.

The first rule I'd offer someone who thinks there's a safety problem in their plant is that if you think you have such a problem, you're probably right.

If a lot of people in the same department all have the same cough or rash then chances are they got it at work. Don't be surprised if management has already thought about this and says, "What do you mean, you got that cough here. You smoke. She has kids with colds. And he's just old" is the kind of stuff bosses say when they know the workplace caused the cough.

So… number one. If everybody has the same symptoms - document it. What are the symptoms? Who has them? What are they working around?

If it's a cough and there's chemicals in the department - get the MSDS for the chemicals. That stands for Material Safety Data Sheets and management has to provide them to you by the end of the work day.

The law says there have to be MSDSs. It doesn't say they have to be complete or easy to understand. Get them anyway. There are websites - you can reach them from or - which provide quality MSDSs if you know the name of the chemicals.

If the problem is carpal tunnel or some other kind of repetitive strain injury from a poorly designed assembly line - get the OSHA 300 log. Management has to provide them to workers, former workers, and the workers union reps.

The Logs won't say what job hurt who but they will reveal who got hurt and what the injury was. Ask the injured workers for their story. If you're trying to solve working conditions problems those are people who share your interest.

And let people talk. Maybe informally. Maybe at a meeting after work. Maybe through a survey - there are simple ones to be found on the websites mentioned. Your co-workers and you know what's going on at work. Pooling your knowledge is strength. Finding ways to fix conditions together is solid unionism. And talk to SEMCOSH or the people at the union hall. We've got plenty more tools and tactics to help you.

Now none of this is to say that fixing working conditions is easy. Sometimes it takes a lot of time and help from experts. Fortunately the UAW has some of the best worker safety experts around.

As a former engine plant worker this story in one that I think illustrates quite well how time and expertise can pay off in fixing working conditions:

Frank Mirer is Director of the UAW Health and Safety Department. He has a PhD and has spent over 25 years addressing the problems of metal working fluids. Metal working fluids are used when cutting metal, they can cause respiratory diseases.

He's conducted research, lobbied, and assisted at negotiations to get safeguards into contract language. Recently the Bush Administration beat back a UAW lawsuit to force OSHA to finally implement a new standard for metalworking fluids. That suit would never been filed without Mirer.

If Frank hasn't managed to change the law it is safe to say that his work has had a positive effect on the lives of thousands of metal workers. His research has forced the producers to use safer chemicals. Negotiations have forced users to use safer methods for handling the fluids and keeping them clean. Frank's work has saved the lives and the health of thousands of metal workers.

So, sometimes we can do it ourselves on the shop floor, sometimes the experts have to take a long road to solve problems, but often the team work and solidarity of the experts and the members can make a difference. It's worth the struggle. It's what union is about.

Original appearance: UAW 174 Conveyor. Working Conditions columns may be used by Union Locals, call for more information

Photo (c) Earl Dotter, used by permission. Dotter's extraordinary photography work can be seen at