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September is the Cruelest Month

Key events transpiring in years past within this span of 30 days have shaped the OH&S landscape, for better and worse.

Summer has come and passed
The innocent can never last
wake me up when September ends. --Green Day

In his epic work "The Waste Land" (1922), T.S. Eliot wrote convincingly that "April is the cruellest month," but a case can be made for September. Throughout American history, all varieties of disasters have transpired in this ninth month of the year--from shipwrecks to plane crashes to terrorist attacks--the aftermath of which have changed the way we live, work, and simply function as a society. Some of these changes have been subtle, others, such as the events of 9/11 seven years ago, comparatively drastic.

Occupational health and safety industries, ever at the heart of the nation's operation, have been affected by September events in sundry ways. And, of course, not all of these have been negative. It was, for example, on Sept. 20, 1853, that Elisah Graves Otis sold his first "hoist machines" (later called elevators), featuring his patented safety brake that guaranteed to automatically stop a rising platform from falling if the ropes that held it broke and soon equally ensured the transformation of America's (indeed, the world's) landscape, as the invention gave literal rise to the development of skyscrapers.

Twenty-five years later to the day (Sept. 20, 1878), Upton Sinclair was born in Baltimore, which turned out to be an auspicious birth for the OH&S industry. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author's novel The Jungle, which dealt with deplorable conditions in the U.S. meat packing plants, caused such a sensation upon publication in 1906 that it helped lead to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act later that same year. The PFDA paved the way for the eventual creation of the Food and Drug Administration, and, since its first appearance, The Jungle has never been out of print.

Another industry positive came on Sept. 5, 1882, when the first U.S. Labor Day parade was held in New York City. Created by the labor movement to honor America’s workers, the idea soon caught on in other states. It was 12 years later, in 1894, that Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September an official national holiday, and it is one we have celebrated ever since, even if many of us know nothing about its origins (see sidebar).

Ironically, though, it was also in 1894, on Sept. 4 (the day after that year's Labor Day), that some 12,000 tailors held a strike in New York City against the sweatshop working conditions then prevailing. Seeking to accomplish for the garment industry what Sinclair's novel had done for the meat packing industry, labor leaders and strikers decried the small, overcrowded, poorly ventilated, fire-prone, rat-infested tenement rooms in which the workers toiled, often for little pay. Significant changes in the form of fire safety codes and labor laws affecting minimum wages and worksite conditions were still years away, but the focus on improving if not eradicating the sweatshop milieu was a major force behind workplace safety regulations to come. Conditions were still inferior by March 1911, when a fire inside the Triangle Waist Company factory in the city's garment district--the same district in which the workers held the 1894 strike--killed 146 workers, mostly immigrant Jewish and Italian women in their teens and early 20s. It was the deadliest workplace incident in the city's history until 9/11, and it galvanized the public’s attention, furthering the strikers' cause.

Land and Sea
Henry H. Bliss, age 68, became the first-recorded U.S. traffic fatality when he was struck and killed by an automobile at Central Park West and 74th Street in New York City on Sept. 13, 1899. Things went downhill from there. As more and more people began cranking up motorized vehicles, more and more people died on the nation’s roadways. By 1913, when the National Safety Council was founded (in September--yet another positive for the month), it began working broadly on safety issues, but especially those involving traffic safety and industrial safety. NSC eventually received a congressional charter signed by President Dwight Eisenhower in August 1953.

But the death rate attributable to motor vehicles continued to rise. By 1925, the annual fatality rate was 18 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, which was significant compared to 1899 but nothing compared to 1960, by which time, according to NSC, unintentional injuries caused 93,803 deaths, 41 percent of which were associated with motor-vehicle crashes. Simply put, with the motorization of America, casualties increased incrementally. So it was that on Sept. 9, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act, which brought changes in both vehicle and highway design. Vehicles were built with new safety features such as shatter-resistant windshields and safety belts, while roads were improved with better markings, signage, illumination, guardrails, and barriers. It became quickly clear that such measures were working. By 1970, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (a product of the Highway Safety Act), motor-vehicle-related death rates were decreasing.

Meanwhile, between Bliss's death and Johnson’s legislation, on Sept. 8, 1934, the luxury cruise ship SS Morro Castle caught fire en route from Havana, Cuba, to New York, killing 135 passengers and crew members. According to a Web site on New Jersey history (www.njhm.com/morrocastle.htm), the passenger liner was "one of the newest and supposedly safest ships afloat," but when it finally beached near Asbury Park, N.J., it looked like a ghost ship. The liner was eventually sold for scrap, but her tragedy directly led to the use of on-board fire retardant materials, automatic fire doors, ship-wide fire alarms, and greater attention to fire drills and procedures in the maritime industry.

Death of a Landmark
On Sept. 22, 1970, the OH&S industry lost one of its founders--some say the founder--when Alice Hamilton, M.D., died at the age of 101. Her long and distinguished career broke ground on many fronts, occupational medicine being just one of them. In the early 1900s, when there were still no laws regulating work safety, Hamilton realized that the health problems of many workers, especially the immigrant poor, were a direct result of the unsafe and unsanitary conditions in which they labored, including their exposure to lead dust and other noxious chemicals. In 1902, during the typhoid fever epidemic in Chicago, she deduced that flies were transmitting the disease, and that the city's poor sewage disposal system was exacerbating the problem. Her findings led to reorganization of the Chicago Health Department.

In 1910, Hamilton became director of Illinois' Occupational Disease Commission--the first commission of its kind in the world--and continued to focus her efforts on mitigating workers' exposure to lead, arsenic, mercury, organic solvents, and other hazardous substances. The commission was instrumental in passing several worker's compensation laws at a time when it was still novel to think that employees might be entitled to compensation for injuries and illnesses sustained on the job.

In 1919, Hamilton became the first woman appointed to the faculty of Harvard Medical School, even though the school did not allow women students until World War II. In 1925, while on the faculty of Harvard's School of Public Health, she published Industrial Poisons in the United States and, in 1934, Industrial Toxicology. Following her retirement from Harvard in 1935, she became a consultant for the DOL's Division of Labor Standards and in 1943 published her autobiography Exploring the Dangerous Trades. In the late 1940s, she served as president of the National Consumers League. In 2002, the American Chemical Society designated her as an ACS National Historical Chemical Landmark in recognition of her role in the development of occupational medicine, helping "make the American workplace less dangerous."

A Month for Emergencies
In September 1971, a year after Hamilton's death, the Chemical Manufacturers Association's Chemical Transportation Emergency Center (CHEMTREC) opened its doors in Arlington, Va., offering 24-hour aid to hazardous materials responders. By its 33rd anniversary in 2004, it had a database of 5 million Material Safety Data Sheets and had assisted in more than 1 million emergencies.

An emergency that captured the country’s attention and spawned a crisis for Johnson & Johnson occurred on Sept. 30, 1982, when seven people in the Chicago area died after taking Extra Strength Tylenol capsules that had been laced with potassium cyanide poison. Attempting to prevent nationwide panic, Johnson & Johnson recalled 31 million bottles of the capsules at a cost of $100 million. The perpetrator was never caught, but the incident led to reforms in the packaging of over-the-counter substances, a redesign of the medicine itself (with solid, safer "caplets" replacing the capsules), and to federal anti-tampering laws.

On Sept. 3, 1991, after a hydraulic line broke near a gas-fired cooker at the Imperial Food Products Inc. chicken processing plant in Hamlet, N.C., 25 workers died and 54 were injured trying to escape the ensuing fire. Reminiscent of the SS Morro Castle tragedy almost 60 years earlier, OSHA's investigation found locked doors, no fire alarms, and no automatic fire suppression system contributed to the disaster.

Three years later, on Sept. 8, 1994, USAir Flight 427 left Chicago's O'Hare International Airport with 127 passengers and five crew members and did not reach its destination. Scheduled to make a stop in Pittsburgh before going on to West Palm Beach, Fla., the Boeing 737's pilots lost control of the aircraft as it approached the Pittsburgh runway, and the plane crashed in a nearly vertical, nose-down position, killing all aboard. After more than four and a half years--the longest investigation in its history--the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the crash was a combination of the craft's airspeed and rudder problems as it made its approach. The incident led to new training for B737 pilots, incorporation of new commands into flight data recorders, and Boeing's redesign of its rudder system on 737s. NTSB Acting Chairman Carol J. Carmody also noted that, following Flight 427's tragedy, the U.S. Congress began requiring airlines to deal more sensitively with the families of crash victims.

Millennial Mayhem
With an official death total of 2,973--including all those aboard the four crashed planes, their hijackers, the firefighters and other emergency responders, and the workers who died in the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon--the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, alone make the case for September's "cruelty." The smoldering ruins of the targeted sites are etched in the nation's collective memory as images that might well be captioned with lines from Eliot's "Waste Land," and the effect on the OH&S industry from the multiple tragedies that transpired on that single day continue to unfold these seven years later. Responders, contractors, and others who spent days, in some cases months, at the World Trade Center site continue to report diagnoses of irreversible and chronic illnesses related to the toxic dust that choked the air of Ground Zero upon the towers' collapse--air filled with asbestos, fiberglass, and other poisonous particles created when materials inside the buildings were vaporized, including 256 elevators and 71 escalators manufactured by Otis's company.

Subsequent training of responders in the necessity and greater use of respirators is one direct effect of the calamity. Other effects, manifested in myriad but mostly subtle ways, are related to the nation's heightened sense of vulnerability and focus on disaster preparedness, facility management, and, most obvious of all, security. Rebuilding at Ground Zero--transforming the site "from rubble to renewal," as Time magazine put it--is underway and includes buildings with various safety, structural, and technological improvements. The Pentagon (which, incidentally, had its first ground-breaking ceremonies back on Sept. 11, 1941) was repaired and rededicated on Sept. 11, 2002.

Meanwhile, exactly one week after the events of 9/11, the still-shocked nation was on the verge of getting hit by terrorist attacks of a different nature, when letters containing anthrax spores were sent with a postmark from Trenton, N.J., dated Sept. 18, 2001. The letters continued over a course of weeks, addressed to several news media offices and two U.S. senators. In all, at least 22 people developed anthrax infections, and five died of inhalation anthrax. Seven years later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation considered scientist Bruce Edwards Ivins, an employee of the government's biodefense labs at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., as the primary suspect. According to an Aug. 1, 2008, Associated Press report, Ivins, feeling the FBI closing in on him, committed suicide by overdosing on "Tylenol with Codeine." On Aug. 6, in the midst of persistent conspiracy theories, federal prosecutors declared Ivins was the sole culprit. Regardless, given the timing of the mailings and the gravity of the events earlier in the month of that postmark, the anthrax attacks served to further heighten national security measures and to increase the government's funding for biological warfare research and preparedness.

With all the turmoil thrown on the country in the preceding 12 days, things got worse for the families of 13 coal miners who died on Sept. 23, 2001, in two explosions at the Jim Walters Resources #5 Mine near Brookwood, Ala. Twelve of the miners were killed by the second explosion while trying to rescue a co-worker who had been incapacitated by the first blast.

Brave New World
It is not an overstatement to say that American life and industry changed after September 2001. The month's events created a new era, or at least a new chapter, in American history. Yet, outside of the longer waits and circus-like atmosphere at airports from all the heightened security, the changes have been, for the most part, beneath the surface. Enactment of the Patriot Act in the month after the attacks, expanding the authority of law enforcement agencies to tap telephones and search e-mail accounts and other personal records in the name of fighting terrorism at home and abroad, signaled a change in the amount of safeguards Americans were willing to abide and the government was willing to enforce. But if federal power post-9/11 seemed pervasive in light of new regulations and restrictions, Americans also soon developed a greater consciousness of world affairs, enough at least to come to the uncomfortable realization that, abroad, many people hated the United States.

On Sept. 11, 2003, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety entered into effect, becoming the first international legally binding tool designed to protect biological diversity and ensure that genetically modified organisms such as corn, potatoes, and soybeans are handled and transferred safely across international borders. Negotiated under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, the Protocol was adopted by more than 130 countries in January 2000, but the United States--one of the world's leading producers of genetically engineered crops--was not one of them. Taking human health risks into account, the Protocol established the need for informed consent before authorization is granted to bring genetically modified crops, or "transgenics," into a country. In addition, it outlined the "precautionary principle," which gives governments the right to suspend production or trade of transgenic crops until there is proof that they are harmless to the environment and to human health.

The United States, which signed but did not ratify the U.N.'s Convention on Biological Diversity, participated in the negotiation of the Protocol's text and its subsequent preparations for enforcement but did not become a party to it. U.S. authorities said the Protocol has "potentially serious implications for global agricultural trade and the delivery of food aid in times of crisis" and added they just wanted that delivery and aid to be implemented "in a practical way without creating unnecessarily strict regulatory barriers." The United States and other nations that chose not to adopt the Protocol--countries such as Argentina, a leading producer of genetically modified soybeans, among other crops—contend there is no conclusive evidence on the health or biodiversity risks of transgenic organisms, which are constructed in the laboratory by splicing genes from other plant or animal species.

On Sept. 9, 2004, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released a report showing that nearly half of the 1,138 screened rescue and recovery workers and volunteers who responded to the World Trade Center attacks had new and persistent respiratory problems, and more than half had persistent psychological symptoms, based on data from a medical screening program funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the report, only 21 percent of the workers and volunteers participating in the screening program, most of whom were police officers and utility and construction workers (firefighters were covered by other programs), had appropriate respiratory protection on the day of the attacks and in the several days thereafter. Fifty-one percent of the screened workers met the predetermined criteria for risk of mental health problems. The report indicated that the participants' risk for post-traumatic stress disorder was four times the rate of PTSD in the general male population. Besides respiratory and mental health effects, participants also cited lower back and upper or lower extremity pain, heartburn, eye irritation, and frequent headaches, the report said.

On Sept. 22, 2005, the 35th anniversary of Hamilton's death, OSHA announced it had reached an agreement with BP Products North America Inc. resulting in the safety agency's highest fine ever--$21,361,500--in connection with a March 2005 explosion at the company's Texas City, Texas, refinery that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170. The subsequent investigation revealed the blast was caused by a fire in the site's isomerization unit when a cloud of hydrocarbon vapors ignited during start-up. The record fine included more than $20 million in penalties for what OSHA classified as egregious willful violations. "This citation and penalty--nearly double the next largest fine in OSHA history--sends a strong message to all employers about the need to protect workers and to make health and safety a core value," Solicitor of Labor Howard M. Radzely said at the time.

Labor Day: A Short History
Sept. 1, 2008, was the 115th observance of Labor Day as an official U.S. holiday, but it also marked the 127th consecutive year that a day was set aside in September specifically to celebrate workers in this country. The first (unofficial) Labor Day took place on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City. Although there is some question about whose idea the celebration originally was, there is no doubt that the city’s Central Labor Union put it all together by appointing a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic. The aim was to have a "workingmen's holiday" that would pay tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of the nation. Given the growth of labor organizations at the time, the idea caught on quickly in other parts of the country. By 1884, the Central Union designated the first Monday in September as the day for the celebration, and 10 years later Congress passed an act making it official, but by then most states had already adopted the idea and were celebrating the day with large parades, speeches, concerts, and mass civic gatherings in general.

"Fifty years ago those parades were still huge," notes labor historian Dr. David Zonderman, an associate professor at North Carolina State University. "Today we still commemorate it, but it’s more about having an extra day off, and the parades aren't that big. If you ask the average man or woman on the street what Labor Day is about, they're likely to say, 'I don't know, we all work and we should get a day off from work.' I think that's kind of where people end the discussion. It's very little about the history of it or the connection to an organized labor movement."

In fact, though, Zonderman adds, early Labor Days were used by workers not only to celebrate their achievements but also to air grievances and push for better working conditions and salaries. New York unions, for example, initially used the holiday to lobby for the institution of an eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek, an effort that did not reach fruition until the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938. "It was a very long struggle," Zonderman says. "Before that law, a lot of people were still working six-day weeks. Well into the 1920s and '30s it was not uncommon for people to work a full day on Saturday and just kind of assume that's the way it was. And back at the turn of the century, in many industries such as steel, people were still working 12-hour days."

Though not documented, there is some thought that the September designation for Labor Day had to do with the long annual "dry spell" between official holidays, especially in the early days of the celebration. "If you go back to the early 19th century, there were some places where workers still did not get Christmas off, even though almost everyone got the Fourth of July off," Zonderman says. "By the late 1800s, usually Christmas was a day off but not always Thanksgiving, so in effect you had your mid-summer holiday with the Fourth of July--which has always been big, from the beginning--and you had your winter holiday at Christmas, so Labor Day would have been somewhere in the middle of the two, seen as a kind of Fall holiday. So, it makes sense by the calendar, but I can’t quote you a famous person from that time who got up and said that."

If today Americans see Labor Day mostly as that pre-Fall holiday or as a leisurely three-day weekend and summer's last hurrah, it is still worth remembering the history behind it. "Things we take for granted today were not taken for granted by our grandparents," Zonderman says. "Our workplace standards are due to what was at one time a strong labor movement, which is not very strong today. I think we take such things for granted and maybe we shouldn't, because they can also be taken away from us if we're not careful."

This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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