Category Archives: work

I can’t count on anybody to understand. (Blogging Against Disablism Day 2010)

(Cross-posted at three rivers fog. See more BADD 2010 at Goldfish’s blog.)

I’m pretty open about my health issues. To be honest, I don’t know any other way to be. I know how to strategically hide my disabilities from strangers in passing interactions, but from the people with whom I interact on a daily basis? Given my appearance — tall, slim, young white girl, pretty enough, clean and conventionally dressed, perfectly middle-class — you’d think it would be easy to keep from communicating variant health, while in reality it is highly tasking. It takes energy to mask my medication-taking, body-resting, trigger-avoiding, activity-budgeting ways from the people around me, and I’m already running an energy deficit just to be around them in the first place.

So fuck it. I don’t hide it when I have to down a pill. If pain, fatigue, or cognitive issues are preventing me from doing something — a task requiring me to stand up or walk somewhere when my back pain is flaring up; speaking with anyone by telephone when my head is throbbing and my brain is not processing full sentences — I say so. I’ve stopped bothering to tuck in my TENS wires to make them completely invisible. When people ask me about the Penguins game last night, the response they hear begins with a mention of my 8:30 bedtime.

There are drawbacks to this. Sharing or not sharing information about one’s health is an extremely fraught decision; some people consider this information rude and gross (even when the actual content is totally innocuous), it can invite unwanted questions and speculation, and there are people who will use your undisguised behavior or the information you have volunteered against you in the future. It amounts to a choice between a life of concealment, which can quickly drain a person’s spirit and often aggravate their actual condition — and a life of vulnerability, never knowing what will be held against you, or by whom. Continue reading I can’t count on anybody to understand. (Blogging Against Disablism Day 2010)

Occupational Hazards: Dangerous Conditions in the US Mining Industry

Here in the United States, headlines have been blaring over the last few weeks about the 29 coal miners killed in West Virginia at the Upper Big Branch Mine. Even the President was outraged, and the public attention may result in a push to reform the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to give it some more regulatory teeth, although there are legitimate questions to be asked about how easy it will be to enact tougher regulations when there’s a revolving door between the mining industry and Congress. Massey Energy Company, which owned the mine, had a history of safety violations but regulators were powerless to do much about them.

52% of the electricity generated in the United States comes from coal. The coal industry in the United States has been criticized for being highly corrupt, for engaging in horrific environmental practices such as mountaintop removal, and, of course, for significant safety violations which put worker health at risk. The mining industry has become more aggressive and more sophisticated to feed the demand for coal in the United States, resulting in longer hours for miners and much more occupational exposure to hazards.

Over 130,000 people work in coal mines in the United States so that we can run our refrigerators, turn our lights on, and, yes, type at our computers. Disasters like the incident at the Upper Big Branch Mine are awful, and they should not happen, and they would also be preventable if MSHA had more regulatory teeth.

But there’s another problem which affects coal miners in the United States, and it’s one which doesn’t get a lot of press. It kills an estimated 700-1,000 miners every year. In the 1970s, death rates from this problem started to decline, but in the 1990s, they rose again, a reflection of changing practices in the coal industry.

That problem is black lung.

Black lung is an occupational and fully preventable disease caused by inhaling coal dust. Miners are more likely to inhale coal dust now than ever before due to changes in mining techniques. Long shifts, increased production, and very deep mining all contribute to a rise in black lung rates. Black lung used to be observed primarily in older miners with a long work history, but today it is increasingly common in younger miners who have not been working in the mines for decades. This illustrates, starkly, that coal miners are inhaling more coal dust than ever before.

Also known as coal worker’s pneumoconiosis or miner’s pneumoconiosis, black lung occurs as inhaled coal builds up in the lungs. The lungs cannot express the coal, and over time this leads to inflammation and scarring. Parts of the lung tissue may die because the trapped coal cuts off the blood supply to the lung. In the early stages, people with black lung experience shortness of breath and a recurrent cough which does not resolve. As the disease progresses, damage spreads to the heart and the miner can also develop autoimmune diseases.

Black lung does not kill right away. Numerous miners are disabled by this disease and in fact benefits are specifically made available by law to miners who have been disabled by black lung. There has also been a move to renegotiate the terms of those benefits to make them more comprehensive. The health insurance reform bill which recently passed in Congress included a clause which:

…reversed 1981 legislation that put the burden on a miner of 15 years or more to prove that his or her disability is caused by black lung, a collection of respiratory illnesses caused by inhaling dust. The new changes also automatically transfer benefits to spouses and other dependents after a miner dies — accepting the presumption that black lung contributed to the death of a miner of 15 years or more. (source)

These changes were resisted by the coal industry and the insurance industry, naturally.

There are two mechanisms for protecting miners from black lung. The first is the use of respirators to limit the amount of coal dust inhaled. The second is the use of monitors to track levels of coal dust in mines. When levels rise too high for respirators to provide protection because they clog the respirators, the monitors send an alert. The monitors are expensive, however, which has made mines slow to adopt them.

In the wake of this most recent disaster, some people have wondered where the Union was; surely, one of the functions of a union is to protect the health and safety of workers, right? I hope it comes as no surprise to learn that the coal industry is also anti-union. The Upper Big Branch Mine is a non-union mine. Not, I would note, by choice of the workers. The workers have voted for a union and were threatened by the CEO of Massey Energy until they backed down.

There are numerous other industries in the United States characterized by dangerous working conditions which lead to illness, disability, and death for their workers. Workers in these industries enjoy few protections. Meat packing plants, for example, are staffed heavily with undocumented workers who are afraid to file complaints for fear of being deported. Workers who do complain are simply fired and replaced with new ones.

Occupational health and safety are disability issues. Rights for workers is a social justice issue. People are injured, disabled, and killed every day in the United States by preventable working conditions and this primarily only attracts attention when mass casualties are involved.

Happy Cesar Chavez Day!

Here in California, today is an official State holiday to celebrate the life and work of Cesar Chavez. Chavez worked to promote and enforce the civil rights of farm workers and, with Dolores Huerta, was cofounder of the United Farm Workers of America, or UFW – still one of the United States’ two major union umbrellas. While his work is usually viewed through the lens of organizing for Latinos, there is a significant disability component to his work.

Migrant farm workers are affected by a number of intersecting a complex factors which negatively affect their health and put them at risk of becoming permanently disabled through their work. They are likely to be exposed to harmful chemicals or dangerous work situations and because they often live on the farm under the control of the farm owner, they have little access to health care. This is all complicated by the immigration status – or lack of – of the workers. Here’s a brief overview of the occupational hazards, from the National Center for Farmworker Health:

The agriculture industry is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. While farmworkers face workplace hazards similar to those found in other industrial settings, such as working with heavy machinery and hard physical labor, they also face unique occupational hazards including pesticide exposure, skin disorders, infectious diseases, lung problems, hearing and vision disorders, and strained muscles and bones. Lack of access to quality medical care makes these risks even greater for the three million migrant and seasonal farmworkers who work in the fields every year.

In 2007, for every 100,000 agricultural workers in the U.S. there were 25.7 occupational deaths in agriculture. This compares to an average rate of 3.7 deaths for every 100,000 workers in all other industries during this same year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention label agriculture the most dangerous industry for young workers in the United States, accounting for 42 percent of all work-related fatalities of young workers between 1992 and 2000. Fifty percent of these victims were younger than 15 years old.

During their daily work, farmworkers are often exposed to pesticides. A 2002 study examined take-home organophosphorus pesticide exposure among agricultural workers and found pesticides in dust samples from 85% of farmworkers’ homes and 87% of farmworkers had pesticides in dust samples in their vehicles. In addition, 88% of farmworker children had organophosphate metabolites in their urine.

Infectious diseases among the farmworker population are caused by poor sanitation and crowded conditions at work and housing sites, including inadequate washing and drinking water. Farmworkers are six times more likely to develop tuberculosis when compared with other workers, and rates of positive TB results between 17% and 50% have been reported throughout the United States.

Because farm labor consists of constant bending, twisting, carrying heavy items, and repetitive motions during long work hours, farmworkers often experience musculoskeletal injuries. Furthermore, workers are often paid piece-rate, which provides an incentive to work at high speed and to skip recommended breaks. From 1999 to 2004, almost 20 percent of farmworkers reported musculoskeletal injuries.

Another complicating factor is the prevalence of child labor on these farms. It is obviously difficult to quantify this phenomenon, but worldwide, approximately 132 million kids between the ages of 5 and 14 work in agriculture. In the United States, somewhere between 300,000 and 800,000 children do agricultural work, sometimes working 12 or even 14 hour days. Environmental pollutants like pesticides have greater effects on children and their growing bodies are often at greater risk of harm from musculoskeletal and other injuries.

The punishing nature of this work is well known and acknowledged by government agencies. The Social Security Administration, which provides cash benefits and medical coverage to individuals it determines are “permanently disabled,” has a special category for “the worn-out worker.” This is a provision specifically for someone with less than a 6th grade education who, after 35+ years of arduous manual labor, can no longer return to that previous employment. The most common example of someone who fits this category is a migrant farm worker – someone who worked in orange orchards, climbing ladders, carrying heavy boxes of fruit, whose body has simply broken down and can no longer sustain that arduous labor.

There are three million workers currently in the fields, including a significant number of children, for whom this is the expected outcome – if they manage to sustain their labor for thirty five years. Cesar Chavez fought for those people and fought to protect them from outcomes and conditions that were, in his time, even worse and more damaging than what I’ve described above. We now must continue his fight.

Si Se Puede!

Aware of what exactly?

Cross-posted at Zero at the Bone and Feministe.

Well, it’s Disability Awareness Month in Indiana, USA. Sound Bend, IN, network WSBT are raising awareness with a story about Sarah Schelstraete, who has Down Syndrome. It’s called Sarah’s Story: Hard at work despite disabilities. One thousand points if you can anticipate from the title what my major problem with the article was.

Now, impairments can make particular kinds of work, or work at all, difficult for people with disabilities, particularly when accommodations – be they ramps or particular lighting or a chair or whatever – are not provided. Leaving aside any accommodations Ms Schelstraete might utilise (it’s irrelevant and really none of our business) there’s no indication as to what impact her impairment might have that would make it hard for her to work at her job as the article title suggests. In fact, the article doesn’t tell us what her job actually is, but moving right along. Now, I’m not saying she definitely doesn’t have challenges related to her impairment, but rather that I have a problem with a particular narrative that this article taps into. This is a narrative that erases Ms Schelstraete’s individual situation, whatever that might be, in favour of conveying disability as something the poor dears must overcome! in their tear-inducing (to abled people) efforts! to live a normal life! which includes paid work!

Perhaps it is that push to gloss everything over that skews the narrative here, but let’s take a gander at the actual information the article provides. Ms Schelstraete is clearly a ‘dependable employee,’ as her supervisor Donna Martis says. She does her job well; interviewees are enthused about her being good at her job. There is not really a need, it would seem, to say that she is doing a good job in spite of her being disabled. She is good at her job. And she is disabled. Just like she is good at her job and a woman, good at her job and a daughter, good at her job and a resident of Indiana, good at her job and, I don’t know, maybe she likes detective shows or cupcakes or whatever. But time and again when disabled people are featured in the media, there’s a kind of shock that “those people” could achieve anything of worth – worth defined according to ableist standards around paid work, of course.

As such, I have a problem with wording like this in the article:

‘Martis said Sarah is a valuable employee who knows how to do her work, and requires little supervision.’

Or how about this?

‘Like any hard-working employee, Sarah knows one big benefit of having a job is making money. She often uses her paycheck to buy DVDs and CDs.’

Yep, just like everybody else – yet her competence must be uniquely examined and confirmed by all these people, despite her having been employed by the same laboratories for seventeen years. This is yet another example of the media trope in which PWD are achieving! through! the hardship! Would you like to know what a hardship is? For many PWD, sometimes more than our impairments themselves? Putting up with that condescending bullshit and fighting to be approached as actual people who should be approached with respect. Because handing out “well done!” stickers has nowhere near of the same value as does being treated like a person with things to offer.

These kinds of awareness-raising stories do little more than give abled readers/viewers/listeners a lift, a feel good story they can tuck away out of mind when they’re done. It’s easier for PWD to be a one-dimensional story, those people put there to light up abled people’s worlds with inspiration, prompting a whispered gratefulness that they’re not one of them. How about we raise some awareness of the social oppression attached to being disabled? Awareness ought to be raised about how many disabled people are out of work because, as Ms Schelstraete’s employment consultant Stacey Simcox says, many ‘don’t give someone the chance because they already have the mindset that they’re not going to be able to do the job even with the support’. About how disabled people so often are treated as though they’re being done a favour by being employed at all. About how work can be a struggle or impossible because of workplace bullying. Because of refusal to provide decent wages. Because employers won’t grant equitable working conditions or accommodations.

And let’s raise awareness about the valuation of work. There’s a nasty thread that runs through these kind of stories that holds disabled people to be societal leeches, a drain on resources. This kind of thinking defines human worth in terms of money, as though people are only good for how much money they contribute and how little they take from welfare or healthcare programs and such. It’s the kind of argument used against poor people who need that assistance, it’s the kind of argument that has led to women’s unpaid work in the home being so devalued. It’s thinking that tries to shame those who utilise thoroughly deserved government assistance, as though it doesn’t exist for a reason.

I am continually astounded by negative reinforcement of difference, but barely ever really surprised. You’d think efforts to raise awareness would require being aware.