Knowing facts helps in fight for workplace safety


Karyl L. Dunson, 46, used to operate a machine that removed hazardous waste at a treatment site of a major oil company in Beaumont, Texas.

The pay was good -- $15 an hour. But Dunson was worried because she was exposed to benzene fumes.

"Benzene causes cancer, and I knew several workers at other refineries who had contracted leukemia," said Dunson, who now works in the firm's chemistry laboratory. She also is volunteer director of the Texas Coalition on Occupational Safety and Health, a union-based group that educates workers about workplace hazards.

That was in 1987, and Dunson went to her local of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union for help. As a result of her efforts, a new ventilation system was installed and workers were given respirators to wear.

"You have to fight back," said the petroleum worker. "If we'd never done anything, people would still be walking around breathing those fumes."

But it's hard to fight back without knowing the facts. "If you look at where women work -- in jobs such as clerks, nurses, poultry processors, cashiers -- there is cause for concern, especially about problems just coming to light such as repetitive motion and dangerous chemicals," said Cynthia Newbille-Marsh, executive director of the National Black Women's Health Project, a non-profit, self-help advocacy group based in Atlanta. "The gender of the people affected has caused a delay in examining effects of computer technology, where large numbers of women have concerns about blurred vision and the need for protective screening and work breaks."

Not much is known about the risks specific to women, writes Randy Rabinowitz in "Is Your Job Making You Sick?" a booklet published by the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW). Rabinowitz, an attorney and expert in occupational workplace hazards, points out that "historically, job safety and health research has focused on men."

The new coalition publication, while acknowledging that both women and men are vulnerable to workplace hazards, underscores the problems women face.

Among the "main dangers," according to the Coalition of Labor Union Women, are:

* Reproductive health: Toxic substances may damage your ability to give birth to healthy children. Women should insist that the workplace be cleaned up. Pregnant women should ask for temporary transfers at the same salary.

* Indoor air quality: Sometimes called the 'sick building syndrome,' some factories and offices have poor circulation resulting in colds, headaches, muscle pain, fatigue and nausea. Good ventilation is needed near copy machines and other office equipment.

* Video display terminals: Primarily operated by women, VDTs can cause eyestrain, muscle fatigue, back strain, repetitive trauma injuries, stress, reproductive problems and dizziness. Frequent breaks are needed, especially for pregnant women. Proper equipment, such as non-reflective screens and adjustable keyboards and chairs, also are needed.

"Don't wait till there's an emergency," advises Pope, a former truck driver and member of the Teamsters Union who has organized factory workers on health issues.

The coalition's booklet on what to do about workplace hazards ** includes a list of questions to ask co-workers about each problem, beginning with, "Do you have frequent headaches?"

"Is Your Job Making You Sick?" is available for $4 a copy or $3 each for orders of 20 or more. Send a check or money order to Coalition of Labor Union Women, 15 Union Square, New York, N.Y. 10003.

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