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National COSH is thankful for its 2013 health and safety awardees

As the time winds down before we break from our conference planning to sit down for a nice Thanksgiving dinner, we want to take the time to share what we at National COSH are thankful for. We are thankful for you- all of our activists, advocates, trainers, leaders, academics, labor folk, and workers- who day after day put the health and safety of workers above all else. You provide a voice to those afraid to speak up; you empower workers to know their rights and stand up for themselves on the job; you fight for workers who have been put in harm’s way or retaliated against. You make it all happen.

In this season of giving thanks, it seems appropriate to announce the winners of the National COSH 2013 Health and Safety Activist Awards. Our decisions were not easy to make: We received more nominations than ever before, highlighting the excellent work of many worker safety and health leaders across the country.

The awardees will be honored during the National Worker Safety and Health Conference next month in Baltimore. Buy your tickets here.

Without further ado, here are our award winners:

Tony Mazzocchi Lifetime Achievement Award:  Bill Kojola, AFL-CIO

Trainer/Educator Award:  Joyce Sagi, American Federation of Teachers

Health and Safety Activist Award:  Christina Iturralde and Tom Fritzsche, Southern Poverty Law Center

Family/Community Award:  Adriana Martinez, Houston Area COSH

Receiving the Tony Mazzocchi Lifetime Achievement Award is Bill Kojola, who recently retired from the AFL-CIO, where he had worked for the past 15 years as the industrial hygienist in the Safety and Health Department. But Bill has spent 35 years fighting for safe jobs and stronger rights for workers.

Bill has coordinated the work of the unions and the safety and health community on a wide range of safety and health issues- including protecting workers from pandemic flu, nanotechnology, work organization/hours of work, respiratory protection, underreporting of injuries and illnesses and more. He has been the primary author on the AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job Report, and represented the AFL-CIO on numerous federal advisory committees.

“Bill has been a great friend and colleague to all in the safety and health community, offering support, assistance, and guidance to all,” said Peg Seminario, the health and safety director of the AFL-CIO, who nominated Bill for this award. “He is a solid, committed trade unionist and respected by all. He has dedicated his life to improving the lives of workers and to social and economic justice for all.”

Receiving the Educator/Trainer Award this year is Joyce Sagi of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). For more than five years, Joyce has conducted over 50 workshops/training sessions on a broad range of issues including workplace violence and bullying, emergency preparedness and response, indoor air quality, and basic hazard awareness for AFT and its affiliates. Most recently, Joyce has been working with NIEHS as an emergency recovery training consultant post-Sandy.

“We routinely send Joyce, as a representative of AFT, to provide training to our affiliates across the country,” said the union’s Health, Safety, and Wellbeing Department, which nominated her for this award. “She is an OSHA authorized trainer and a frequent lead in AFT Emergency Preparedness and response training.”

Joyce also serves on the AFT National Health and Safety Advisory Board and the Indoor Air Quality Task Force. In addition to all of this work, Joyce also serves as a board member for the New Jersey Work Environment Council and as Executive Vice-President for the Greater NJ Chapter of Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW).

Receiving this year’s Health and Safety Activist Award are Christina Iturralde and Tom Fritzsche, both staff attorneys at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. The two have been instrumental in a coalition of groups pushing the USDA to withdraw a proposal to increase line speeds at poultry plants, which would have detrimental effects on worker and food safety.

“When the USDA wanted to allow Big Chicken to run poultry production lines at dizzying speeds in exchange for so-called improvements in food safety, Tom and Christina dug in their talons and didn’tlet up,” said Catherine Singley Harvey, a senior policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza, who nominated the pair. “Together with allies from the consumer protection, civil rights, and public health communities, they challenged the morality and the legality of the agency’s ill-conceived rule.

“Tom and Christina put poultry workers on the phone to speak directly with the USDA’s Undersecretary for Food Safety. They documented aches, pains, and crippled limbs in a one-of-a-kind report that continues to draw national media attention. When the White House stopped returning their phone calls, they joined with poultry workers to submit a 72-page petition to the U.S. Department of Labor to establish a safe line speed. They even took the fight to the global stage by filing a petition of human rights violations with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Tom and Christina’s efforts and perseverance have been instrumental in stalling/hampering/frustrating USDA’s insistence on publishing it. By pulling out all the stops, SPLC has successfully put the brakes on a real threat to worker health and safety.”

Finally, receiving this year’s Health and Safety Family/Community Award is Adriana Martinez of the newly formed Houston Area COSH Group.

Adriana is far too young to be a widow. But in 2009, her husband, Orestes, 29, was killed while working for J.T. Vaughn Enterprises. The firm is one of the biggest construction contractors in Texas, yet it didn’thave the proper equipment in place for Orestes and his co-workers to do their job safely. (See Orestes’ story here, and Adriana’s testimony in National COSH’s Workers’ Memorial Day report here.)

“Despite the painful and empty space in her heart, Adriana is on a mission,” said Laura Perez-Boston, the executive director of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center, who nominated Adriana for the award. “It’s a battle to force employers to provide safe workplaces and, when they don” t, to be held accountable. Adriana has made her mark in Houston and beyond.”

Adriana worked this year as a health and safety intern with the Fe y Justicia Houston Worker Center, including the Build a Better Texas Campaign and Down with Wage Theft Campaign, safety trainings, and outreach to vulnerable workers. She was the lead coordinator of the 2013 Worker Memorial Day in Houston, and was instrumental in engaging new partners to it.

Thanks to the support of Perez-Boston and her coordination with Adriana, the Fe y Justicia Worker Center is now an associate member of National COSH, and it launched a broad-based community health and safety committee.

Adriana lives out her commitment not just fighting for health and safety, but building the power of low-wage workers and seeking justice through long-term institutional change. Her message to policymakers and employers is simple: “My life completely changed because someone put a price tag on my husband’s life. What hurts the most is that his death was preventable.”

We invite you all to attend the Awards Dinner to honor these awardees, which will be held on Wednesday, December 11 from 7 to 9:30 p.m.- during the National Worker Safety and Health Conference in Baltimore, MD. You do not need to be attending the conference to attend the Awards Dinner (though, we” d certainly love for you to come to both).

If you are not staying at the Maritime Institute, the cost of attending the Awards Dinner is $25 per person. Buy your tickets here.

You can register for the National Worker Safety and Health Conference here– but hurry! Space is quickly filling up.  

We look forward to seeing you in Baltimore and sharing stories and successes of these awardees and all of our worker safety community.