Our VoiceNews & Politics

A Little Knowledge Yields A Lot Of Power

Carlos Rich • May 25, 2010

osha_blogI never expected something so small that it could fit in a back pocket to make such a big difference.  For many in this country, information is readily available via the Internet.  But this is not the always case in rural Iowa, and when useful information comes along it is well-received.

Back in mid-January I was in D.C. for a meeting about better safety laws and regulations for workers in the food industry - like meat processing workers, migrant agricultural workers and restaurant workers. While there, my colleagues and I stopped by the offices of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). We met with representatives who heard our concerns about the health and safety hazards immigrant workers and workers of color face every day in the heartland.

They asked my opinion about what they could do so that workers would know about the role of OSHA and how they can find help.  I suggested a couple of ideas, but one seemed to resonate.  I told them what would be helpful would be to quickly get the information out to many workers by creating a reference card that could fit in a wallet.  Well, much to my surprise, three month later, at the Houston Latino Summit one of the representatives of OSHA called me over and said, “because of you we can start changing the world and getting important information out.”

They made wallet-sized cards to hand out to workers who otherwise could not access this information.  Excited about this, we took a box full home and began to distribute them in workplaces.  Needless to say, the plant managers were not happy about this.

They called community leaders (who comprise health action councils) into the office and asked them why they were passing out those cards.  Workers responded ‘because it’s important to have safe places to work,’ and then told the managers they were also welcome to take a card.

Just last week, they called leaders of the health action councils into the office again.  This time was different.  Usually when workers get called into the office, it is to be reprimanded.   That was not the case this time for the worker leaders.  For the first time in a long time, the managers actually asked their opinions on the safety issues that need attention and correcting.

Why is this huge for them? Because as many of you may know, these workplaces are very hostile environments for workers.  In the past, workers faced retaliation for bringing issues of safety to light.  Many workers had become too afraid to speak out, because they knew that they would be ignored or even fired.

While we are creating new ways of communicating on the Internet, some places and some individuals do not yet have the information at their fingertips.  Sometimes all it takes is a simple card with essential information that can change the lives of many vulnerable people. And thanks to OSHA we know that government agencies will listen if we’re willing to talk.

That’s progress.

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