Steve Hecker prepares to leave LERC after 25 years

EUGENE — For 25 years, University of Oregon associate professor Steven Hecker has worked with unions, employers and government agencies to combat workplace health hazards. In August, he’s leaving U of O’s Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) to take a post at the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences.

Hecker, 55, got a bachelor’s degree in labor history from Yale University in 1972, and a master’s degree in public health from University of Washington in 1981. During his years at LERC, he became an expert on ergonomics, drug testing, and health and safety hazards in the wood products, construction, health care and airline industries. His work combined research, consulting and public education.

Two weeks before Workers Memorial Day, Hecker talked with Northwest Labor Press associate editor Don McIntosh about what has happened to worker safety and health.

Do you think Oregon workers are safer than they were a decade or two ago? Yeah, I think there’s no question. When I came here, timber was a big industry and there was still a huge amount of logging going on. The industry mix, in terms of physical hazards, changed and led to a general reduction in hazardous exposure. But also, we’ve learned a lot in the last 20 years about effective implementation of safety programs and about what works, what doesn’t work. And now there’s a focus on prevention of musculo-skeletal injuries. Before, we never really did much about it except try to treat people and get them back to work. Now we recognize that we have to approach it differently.

Most of the work you’ve done over the years comes down to education about best practices and equipment, investigating particular situations to come up with better ways to prevent injuries and protect workers’ health. But did you ever have any kind of political role, like testifying at the Oregon Legislature? I did a lot of that in the early days, especially when the Democrats controlled the Legislature. There was a lot of work around the right to know about chemical hazards in the early ‘80s. and I testified on that.

Did you get anywhere with it? Well, they tried to get a state Right-To- Know bill here in Oregon, and we weren’t successful in getting the legislation passed. But it forced OSHA even under Reagan to come out with the hazardous communication standards.

How significant an event was the failure of national OSHA to develop an ergonomics standard after many years of research? It was a huge failure. Obviously, ergonomics is a hotly contested issue, but my experience is that the regulated gets attention and the unregulated gets less attention. So I think that when Bush signed a repeal, it really took the wind out of the sails of ergonomic change for a while. Obviously, it had a momentum, and its still happening.

That’s one of the first things Bush did when he came into office. But do you think the Clinton Administration maybe had dragged its feet? I mean, they had eight years to get that started. Yeah, I think that happened. But you also have to remember that when the Republicans took over the House in 1994, they started putting riders on the appropriations bills which forbid the Labor Department from doing anything. So that was one of the reasons it was kind of a midnight regulation at the last minute.

Given the shift in industries nationally, and perhaps some improvement in practices in the most hazardous industries, are ergonomics and musculo-skeletal disorders now the biggest hazard for American workers? I would say for a large sector of American workers that’s true. But I think what we’re seeing is the export of a lot of hazards. The U.S. has a lot of very high-tech industry, but it also still has sweatshops where the old-fashioned hazards are present. The conditions in other parts of the world definitely have an impact on what American workplaces are going to be like.

At one point, you also developed an interest in drug testing? We became the resident experts on drug testing, for labor. It started when Reagan was pushing it. It was a very dicey time because a lot of the unions didn’t know what to do. On the one hand, nobody wants to be working next to somebody who’s on drugs. On the other hand, there were all the issues on due process, and bargaining over these things, which were clearly changes in conditions. I quickly learned the science of drug testing. When it was first introduced, there was a lot of suspicion, because you didn’t always know that the lab you used would be accurate. At the time a lot of people were concerned that it was also being used as a club to go after unions or after particular workers. So we did a number of courses and conferences. One of the things we were running into that we were concerned about is that unions were not recognizing that if they did respond or demand to bargain, that six months might go by and one of the members would be caught on something. The union would try to challenge the program, and an arbitrator would say ‘Well, you had your opportunity to demand to bargain over this and you didn’t.’ The drug-testing issue was big for a couple years in the 1980s. I got into some hot water. If you were challenging anything about drug testing, you were ‘pro-drug’ — that was how you got labeled. It’s sort of like now, you’re called pro-terrorist if you complain about wiretapping.

I’ve heard that Oregon has some of the lowest fines for violations of occupational safety and health standards. I don’t know if that’s true, but there’s no question that Oregon for a long time has not been high on the punitive fines.

Is that bad thing? Does it have a negative result in that employers are less afraid to disregard the law? I think that fines definitely play a deterrent role. The move, in the whole country, away from enforcement is problematic. Enforcement is definitely not the only tool, but without it you don’t have the fundamental building block of an effective system.

What’s taking its place? Well there’s not much taking its place. This is the great problem we face. Deregulation started many years ago, and a big push came with Reagan, but what we’ve seen with Bush is unprecedented. The recent mine disaster is a great example — putting the industry in charge of the regulatory agency and then sort of letting things go, taking the line that cooperation, collaboration is the only way to go. But it doesn’t work. It leads to cutting a lot of corners, and people die.

What about the insurance approach, where an employer’s safety record affects the workers’ compensation rates they pay? I think that does help, and some of the workers’ comp insurers keep after their insured better than they used to. But I just don’t believe that incentive is enough. I mean, workers’ comp started in the 1910s, and we still needed OSHA in 1970, and you still need something now.

So with the Bush Administration, we’re moving away from enforcement? Right. There’s no appetite for it ... In the U.S. right now, you look at who the secretary of labor is, at who the administrator of OSHA is … There’s nothing there in terms of enforcing the law. When’s the last time we had a new standard out of OSHA? They’re just so far behind. The chromium standard finally is coming out, but they’ve basically stopped work on almost everything. And in Oregon, I think Oregon OSHA was so afraid of offending the Legislature over the last decade or so that they just sort of let things go, and collaborated rather than make anybody mad. In the early ’90s we had a big infusion of money, and Oregon OSHA had the best ratio of inspectors to workplaces in the country. We were good on some things. We had more ergonomics consultants in Oregon OSHA than the federal OSHA had in the entire country.

But budget cuts have taken a toll? Right.

Let’s talk about some of the work you did improving safety in different industries. What kind of work did you do in health care? It was always obvious to people that logging was a hazardous occupation. It was not always obvious to people that working in a hospital was a hazardous occupation. Over the last 20 years a variety of things have been recognized. Nurses and other hospital employees work with anti-cancer drugs, which are very powerful agents. We started to recognize they could have effect on people administering them. HIV was a real moment of recognition — we were exposing [health care workers] to some real serious hazards — AIDS, hepatitis, even tuberculosis. As experts began to understand AIDS and HIV better, you had universal precautions introduced, where you assume all blood and bodily fluids could be contaminated. This is where the bloodborne pathogens standards came from. You began to implement universal precautions. The most visible thing is sharps disposal. For years you had situations where housekeepers doing laundry would find needles in the folds. now they’re taking precautions at every level in hospitals. And there’s the risk of musculo-skeletal injury to nurses, nurses aides and other workers. The big push in patient handling these days is for what they call ‘zero lift’ or ‘no-manual-handling’ of patients. There’s the introduction of a lot of lifting equipment. New hospitals are being designed with built-in tracks in the ceiling for lifts.

You’ve also worked a lot with carpenters and in construction? The construction work we’ve done has been one of our biggest health and safety projects at LERC in the last 10 years. We started working with the building trades and contractors on the Intel facilities out in Hillsboro in ‘95. We got funding to do applied research to try to reduce the risk of strain and sprain injuries among construction workers. When we started, you’d walk out onto a construction site and look in any direction and you’d see people doing things with their bodies that really put them at risk. So we started looking at drywallers and electricians and sheet metal workers and pipe fitters and carpenters, you name it. We looked around for particular tool modifications or changes of work practices to try to reduce some of those risks. We had remarkable success considering what people thought we could do at the beginning. Those programs really developed over the years and gave the Portland area in particular a pretty strong reputation as one of the more advanced areas in construction safety in the United States. And a lot of that was driven by the Intel project. But a lot of it also came from the various trades, and the adoption of some pretty progressive construction safety practices. They ranged from things as simple as introducing anti-fatigue mats into areas where welders were working.

But you’re talking about practices and equipment that would be instituted in the top end of the industry. What about the majority of construction workers that might work in the residential and non-union part of the industry? Well, that’s a very good question and one we’ve asked ourselves. We decided you’ve got to work with people at the cutting edge who are willing to try new things. But there is the rest of industry out there. To some extent, those new practices do filter out, and one of the ways they do is as contractors get bigger and want to play with the big boys, they learn that the bar has been raised for what standards they have to meet. But we also recognize that it’s a very hard craft to try to make changes in. In some cases, people are paid piece rate, and they don’t want anything that’s going to slow them down.

What other industries have you worked with? Well I spent a lot of time in the late ‘80s working with the pulp and paper industry. There it was chemicals, noise, and ergonomics like everybody else. There was a lot of concern about chemicals, about chlorine.

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