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NRDC Scientist Gives Labor Day Seminar

By Robin Arnette
October 2008

Sass, who is also an NIEHS Public Interest Partner, said she feels passionately about the Institute and its ability to make a difference with solid scientific studies. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Chris Long
The audience filled Rodbell A and included NIEHS Deputy Associate Director for Management Chris Long, above, and Acting Director Sam Wilson, M.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Jirles, above, pondered a question from the audience as he moderated the question and answer session that followed Sass's talk. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Throughout this country's history women have taken the lead in social reform issues, most notably the suffrage movement and the Equal Pay Act of 1963. A recent Labor Day seminar held at NIEHS expounded the role that women have played in other areas such as public health, environmental justice and workplace safety. On August 28 in Rodbell Auditorium, Jennifer Sass, Ph.D., a senior environmental scientist from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), presented "Occupational Safety, Public Health and Environmental Protection: The Historical Role of Women in Making the Connection."

The seminar was sponsored by AFGE Local 2923, the union at NIEHS, and the NIEHS Diversity Council. AFGE president, Bill Jirles, gave a brief history of the Labor Day holiday and introduced the speaker.

Sass said that during the mid-1800s and early 1900s, women were shut out of academic institutions, workplaces and unions. As a result many middle-class women wanted an opportunity to contribute to society by devoting their lives to social service.

To fill this need, according to Sass, women established institutions called settlement houses in working-class and poor neighborhoods. One of these activists, Jane Addams, started Hull House, the most famous settlement house, in Chicago in 1889. The women of Hull House and other settlement houses offered health care, hygiene education, basic education and childcare, but they also addressed issues involving crowded and unsafe conditions in the textile and garment industries, which employed large numbers of women and children.

Sass explained that in 1909 the women of Hull House documented a strike in which almost 20,000 New York City garment workers walked out in protest, but it wasn't until the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 that real advances were made. Sass said, "There had been many fires in the building and throughout the garment district because of the hot machinery and all of the textiles lying around. Most of the 146 people who died that day were women. Management kept the doors and fire escapes locked, so a lot of them jumped out of windows."

Sass said that one of the people who observed the fire that day was Frances Perkins. President Roosevelt later appointed Perkins secretary of labor (1933-1945), and she was responsible for several important pieces of legislation including The National Labor Relations Act in 1935, which permitted workers to form unions and bargain collectively and The Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which established a minimum wage of 40 cents per hour.

Other key members of Hull House included Florence Kelley, who was appointed to the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1892 and documented child labor in the state. Alice Hamilton was the first industrial physician in North America, and in 1934, published Industrial Toxicology, detailing the health effects of occupational exposures to chromium, lead, mercury, beryllium, radiation and other industrial poisons.

These female pioneers laid the groundwork for today's women to continue the tradition and spirit of Hull House. One good example is Margaret Seminario, director of Safety and Health for the AFL-CIO since 1977. Seminario has been involved in the passage of numerous OSHA rules involving respiratory protection, hazardous waste operations and many others.

Despite the advances in understanding the connection between environmental health and work-life, much remains to be done. Sass said the budget cuts in Washington have resulted in federal agencies running out of money to do in-house science. As a result, the science that comes to these agencies is from industry or corporations looking to promote their products.

Sass concluded her seminar with an impassioned plea to NIEHS scientists to become vocal partners in protecting the nation's citizens. She stated, "We can't stay silent when scientists working in the interest of polluters and their contractors maintain controversies and doubt over the evidence. Even though you do so much already, I'm here to ask you to not just generate the data, but to speak out for it."

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