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Putting the power of collective storytelling into action for worker’s safety

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What do a group of factory workers in New Jersey and domestic cleaners in Manhattan share with dairy and poultry workers all across rural America? They know their workplace stories have power, and they’re using WorkedUp, a collective storytelling campaign, to organize and make change happen.

WorkedUp makes it easy for hardworking people to document what happens in the workplace via YouTube videos and written testimonials. The simple yet powerful resource was started by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) — a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grantee — through its 26 local and state affiliates. 

The WorkedUp campaign, launched by National COSH and its national and local partners earlier this year, elevates the voices of workers and families who are paying the price for the failure of employers to respond forcefully to COVID-19 and other workplace hazards. The goal of WorkedUp is to inspire workers to build and assert their collective power and to inspire support for everyone fighting to achieve safety, health and respect on the job. 

Workplace safety has always been an important issue, but the pandemic has exacerbated workplace risks and increased additional risks to families facing challenging circumstances with immigration status, poverty or housing insecurity. While the heroism of essential workers who risk their own health and well-being have received much media attention, less focus has been placed on whether employers are making every effort to ensure these workers are kept safe. 

“These stories are not just about the threat of physical injury or financial exploitation. Emotional abuse, exploitation and trauma affect the mental health and stability of entire families,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of National COSH. “Overall, workplace safety is a family issue that has repercussions for an entire household.”

WorkedUp activates National COSH’s state and local affiliates to identify workplaces and employees with issues that deserve to be highlighted. Workers tell their stories and start a dialogue — with their co-workers, with related and aligned workforces, and ultimately with employers and policymakers. WorkedUp captures the spirit of a growing segment of America’s workforce, whether these workers are organizing to form a union or empowering themselves through education on workplace safety and labor laws in their state.

WorkedUp offers hope to workers in precarious circumstances–such as Marilu, who works as a domestic worker in Manhattan and shared her story of aggressive and inappropriate behavior from a male employer. 

“I never wanted what happened to me to happen to any other woman, which is why I shared my story,” said Marilu. “We are essential workers in cleaning here in the United States and we deserve respect just as much as anyone else.”

Workers from a bottling company in New Jersey also used WorkedUp as a medium to highlight dangerous working conditions at their factory. Worker testimonies mentioned routine injuries due to slippery floors and malfunctioning machinery.

“Workers know there is no such thing as a ‘workplace accident’. It’s workplace negligence and negligence is a choice,” said Jessica E Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH. “The way we talk about these injuries matters because employers have been let off the hook for so long that it’s time we reframe how we think of them. Accidents are random. Workplace injuries are preventable, every single one.”

Because workers spoke up about shabby working conditions, with help from National COSH and WorkedUp to shine a light on what was happening, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Refresco $49,724 for violations of federal safety laws. 

 

Though less than a year old, WorkedUp’s collective storytelling builds off the achievements of National COSH’s network, through initiatives in which workers have:

  • Formed public health councils to monitor workplace health and safety violations (Los Angeles County, California);
  • Secured enforceable safety standards and rights to form health and safety committees with management (New York state);
  • Won the nation’s first essential workers’ board (Harris County, Texas);
  • Built an outdoor worker committee leading the fight for protection from extreme heat on the job in Florida (Homestead, Florida);
  • Developed worker committees to investigate and organize around workplace injustices in the poultry processing industry (Western North Carolina); and much more.

COVID-19 has disrupted systems and wreaked havoc, but it has also exposed long-standing inequities and hypocrisies about how much value we give to those whose labor we depend on every day. National COSH and WorkedUp are helping workers protect themselves.

"When workers are safe and sufficiently protected from injury or danger, they become more economically and emotionally secure and are able to feed and physically care for families. We can no longer say we don’t know. Let's use this knowledge to demand we do better, to ensure we protect each other, our families and our communities.”

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of National COSH

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