No, in this moment I’m not writing about politics or discrimination. I am blogging about something that is related to my work, which I rarely do on this personal writing platform, except when I feel compelled to use this blog as a way to share frustration, and with the hope of sharing concerns that may support larger efforts to move ahead. A few of my past personal blogs with connections to my day job included: Hair and formaldehyde, power and health; and, Worker safety, politics, the past. (Note: As always, the views expressed in this post are mine alone and not those of my employer.)
Here’s the thing: I love what I do for a profession and I’ve never second-guessed my decision to do what I do. Yet, we safety and health professionals experience moments when we meet workers stuck doing tasks or working jobs in a way that doesn’t make sense. Not here and not on the brink of 2020. And OSH Professionals, as those people hired to help organizations make the right decisions to send every worker home safely and in a way that doesn’t compromise their health, sometimes can’t. That’s when it’s hard.
The reason this most recent brain wrestling match of mine seemed particularly relatable in this blog about all things Oregon, is that it happens to involve one of our oldest industries: pulp and paper. And, as if that wasn’t enough, I’ve written before about how my great-great-grandfather, J.K. Gill, joined Oregonian publisher Henry Pittock to establish the LaCamas (today’s Camas, WA) Columbia River Paper Company in 1884. Pittock had already helped form the first mill in the Northwest in Oregon City in 1866. The mills supplied newsprint to the Oregonian and the Portland Evening Telegram, and eventually became part of the giant Georgia Pacific company. Over the past more than 150 years of work, this industry has struggled to comply with changing environmental regulations, adapt to new and different forest and logging practices, and survive through mergers, consolidations, buyouts and shut-downs. None of this has been easy on its workforce, and those trying to grow jobs, and this I fully recognize. From the beginning, unions have been a powerful voice for workers, especially to help provide safe jobs, and often as companies grew, some leaving the worker voice behind.
For more than the last ten years I’ve attended a regional pulp and paper safety conference here in Oregon. It has always been one of my favorite events to exhibit and teach at. For the last several years I’ve been requested to teach a 90-minute class addressing sleep, fatigue and shift work. Every year I gear up for it, believing this to be among the toughest industry to talk to about sleep, not because it’s not a popular topic, because dozens choose to attend my classes. But because I feel powerless to actually be able to suggest meaningful changes that these companies will adopt.
Like many companies with 24-hour production, we’ve seen work shifts change over time. We OSH professionals hope for, and encourage organizations to select shifts that better suit the circadian cycles of humans, and allow affected workers to “have a life” outside of work. Yet, today, we commonly find the mandatory coupling of long twelve-hour shifts with overtime often because there are simply not enough workers. I found my class full of sleep-deprived employees, and not solely because they might be used to night shift. Although most in the class would have argued, it’s hard for me not to question that it might have been just as good for me to have given them a 90-minute nap! And while some of the workforce may assert to be pleased to get those dollars associated with all that overtime, they are the first to acknowledge their exhaustion, and the safety and health risks they create and face.
If we work a 16-hour shift, which is common to this group, we have a mere eight hours to get home (and most commutes in today’s Oregon are far more than a few minutes), eat, see family or friends, not to mention sleep. While those few extra days off sound nice, they certainly aren’t enough for your body to catch up, especially if you are rotating between day and night, and working more overtime (or taking on a second job). Yes, the workforce may be getting the pay, but at what expense? If you have eight hours between your two 16-hour shifts, what are you going to use that time to do? In most industries we do not allow workers to work more than 12 or 13 hours in a stretch (which, incidentally, is already a long shift). And yet, company and union bargaining has allowed this, at least within some of this industry. I can assume there are many factors going into this allowance, and understand there are not simple solutions. We have a no-win situation aggravated by an industry with fewer people interested in moving into, and that sometimes includes two tiers of pay and benefits. Some might imagine this to be because potential new workers have seen the demands placed on the workforce, they have different interests, or as some claim, they don’t want to work that hard. It’s a complicated labor situation of which neither do I know the answers, nor am I here to attack or blame. I’m simply aware of the significant problems it has created for a workforce I care about.
We do know some good things are happening, and I’d love to know more about others I’m not yet aware of. Close to home we have the environmentally sustainable work being done by the newly re-named and re-opened Willamette Falls Paper Company (previously West Linn Paper Company). Paper-making innovations at this plant include using straw and agricultural waste, eventually, rather than lumber for their paper product, as well as investigating other options. I look forward to learning more about any employment of sustainable people practices at this plant.
I appreciate and care for those working in this industry. I hope (and plead and repeat my concerns to whoever wants to listen) that we prioritize our workforce’s health, safety and well-being as we move into 2020.