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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tales of Toil: Occupational Safety in Literature

Mikael Blomkvist risks his life to conduct investigative journalism. Candido and America navigate day-labor sites and accept significant hazards in their work. Abilene, a black maid in 1960's Mississippi, describes her working conditions in white households. Jacob Jankowski cares for circus lions and elephants but fears his boss and co-workers. Books like The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Tortilla Curtain, The Help, and Water for Elephants can get to the heart of workplace issues within the context of a page turner. Books have the ability to go beyond the fatalities and injuries reported in the news or the safety information presented by NIOSH and others to delve into the complexities of how these issues affect individuals, families, and communities.

A prominent fiction book to first address the issue of workplaces was Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. The book follows an immigrant Lithuanian family through their struggles in 1906 Chicago. The book prompted individuals and voters to question their food safety but also enlightened them on work hazards in the meatpacking industry.

The idea for this entry was suggested by a reader on our first "OS&H in the Movies" blog. If you are a movie buff, check it out – and its sequel.

Many non-fiction books chronicle the lives of working people. Studs Terkel, an oral historian, produced a best seller in 1974 by giving firsthand account of ordinary workers and what they think of their jobs; from custodians to a nun, from a police officer to farm workers, all had their story. The book Working was later made into a PBS documentary of the same name. Sharing a similar sentiment, Tom Jones set out to find the everyday stories of people in Working at the Ballpark. Blue-Collar Journal: A College President's Sabbatical by John R. Coleman is the story of a college president who spent his sabbatical doing menial jobs around the country. From trash collecting to digging ditches, this finance professor learned about finances from becoming a working man. He also learned the enjoyment of a hard job done well. Similarly, in Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, the author travels the country working the "lowliest" jobs for poverty-level wages.

See a list of all these books on Goodreads. If you have recommendations, we'll add them to the list.

The Tortilla Curtain is one of the few books that describes an occupational chemical over-exposure. Written by T.C. Boyle, the book follows a Hispanic immigrant couple as they venture into the U.S. looking for work. This couple's problems are contrasted with the problems of an upper middle class couple whose paths cross. As a day laborer, America was put in the position of using solvents to clean pottery without gloves resulting in significant burns and discomfort.

Occupational safety or rather the fatalities that result in its absence is a more common theme. Starting with the 1885 novel Germinal by Emile Zola about a coal miner's strike, there are many novels about coal miners mostly revolving around disasters. Digging Out by Katherine Leiner (2004) is the fictional story of loss and family reconciliation revolving around a true mine disaster in Aberfan, Wales. A cross between literary fiction and science fiction, Spin State by Chris Moriarty revolves around the life of an alien living through a mining accident on a colony planet. Hazard by Gardiner Harris is a mystery which takes place in Eastern Kentucky. Inspector Will Murphy, brother of the mine owner, investigates a mining accident and suspects something suspicious... Continuing with the workplace fatality theme, The Perfect Storm by Sebastion Junger describes a close-knit New England fishing town. This true story about the "storm of the century" and the sword boat Andrea Gale gives a detailed account of long sea voyages, short home furloughs, relationships, and the lives of fishermen. The story also delves into the training of the Air National Guard in their daily job of rescuing people at sea.

Occupational radiation exposure is highlighted in Madame Curie: A Biography by Eve Curie. The book is an excellent motivating story of a great scientist who fought many hardships including poverty while growing up in Poland, the male-dominated university establishment, and unknowingly the hazards of radiation. She worked intimately with radiation since she mined it herself from pitchblend, never understood a need for precautions for radiation exposure, and died from leukemia. Bill Bryson in A Short History of Nearly Everything reports that Dr. Curie's notebooks are kept in a lead-lined trunk because today they still contain dangerous levels of radiation.

Of these books, my favorites are Blue Collar Journal, The Perfect Storm, and Madame Curie. What are your favorites? Have you read some of these books? Should you add some of these books to your reading list? Should we add some to ours? We would love to hear your thoughts and your occupational safety and health book choices. Do they show an accurate picture of the job and its hazards and solutions?

—Cheryl Fairfield Estill, M.S., P.E.

Ms. Estill is an Industrial Hygiene Supervisor in the NIOSH Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations, and Field Studies.

Posted 3/22/2011 at 10:00 am

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