WORKERS UNITED FOR HEALTH AND SAFETY:
HISTORY OF MAINE LABOR GROUP ON HEALTH, INC. 1977-2000
The Maine Labor Group on Health was founded in 1977 by trade unionists concerned with health and safety issues in the workplace and with other health care issues such as the cost of health insurance. The MLGH developed from the meetings in Portland and Bangor, held in March 1977, to discuss the health concerns of local union leaders in Maine. Technical assistance and support services were provided by the Maine Health Systems Agency in the first two years. Initial efforts were coordinated by Ernie Stallworth who was then on staff of the Maine Health Systems Agency, and who later became the first part-time staff person for MLGH.
The purposes of the organization were defined at the time, and have remained the same over the last twenty plus years. The Bylaws State: “The purpose and objective of this cooperation shall be to educate Maine’s working people about health and safety in the workplace and to function as a statewide advocate for working people within the health care system.”
Early efforts of the organization were directed toward legislative advocacy for workers and cost containment in the health care system. As a result of member efforts, Maine had the first worker right-to-know law in the country. These advocacy efforts continued and expanded, to include:
- Working for an OSHA office in Maine that was finally established in 1980;
- Working with the AFL-CIO and other interested groups to strengthen the Chemical Identification Law;
- Lobbying for passage of a Community Right To Know Act to provide Maine citizens with information about the hazardous substances in their communities;
- Working for passage of an Occupational Disease Reporting Act in order to document worker illness caused by workplace hazards;
- Developing a coalition of consumers to work to reduce health care costs and to improve access, passing significant legislation to improve access and slow the rate of cost increases;
- Assisting injured workers to form an organization in order to provide support for others injured in the workplace, and to work for changes to better protect the rights of injured workers;
- Developing a coalition of labor, consumer, and environmental groups to work for reductions in the use of toxic chemicals in industry, successfully passing legislation that required industry to reduce the use of toxic chemicals and the production of hazardous waste,” and
- Working with management representatives and other labor people to develop a solution to the long-standing workers compensation problem.
Over the years Maine Labor Group on Health has received money from many federal and state agencies. These funds have supported a variety of projects in health care access, worker training, and development of infrastructure in health and safety.
In 1979 and 1980 the Board of the MLGH applied for and received funds to conduct a feasibility study for an HMO in Portland. Federal funds were no longer available after the Reagan administration took office, leading to the abandonment of the HMO plan for lack of start up funds. The people who worked with us are now involved in the operation of three HMOs in Maine. We were a decade ahead with the HMO/cost containment trend in New England, however, we currently have serious concerns about some of the managed care plans that try to achieve cost containment through cuts in benefits and services.
In 1980 the Board applied for and received funds from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under its “New Direction Program”. The OSHA funds provided for development of an Occupational Health Resource Center, publication of a newsletter, and for the development of health and safety training for Maine workers in the paper industry. This program was funded for six years, 1980-1986, was expanded to cover workers in other industries, and provided training for several thousand workers in the paper industry and at other workplaces. The staff for the OSHA grant were Susan Accardi, Charles Leavitt, and Polly Campbell. OSHA funding ended as the MLGH became self-sufficient.
Since 1986, the MLGH has developed training contracts with the Workplace Training and Education Fund, administered by the Maine Department of Labor and supported by an assessment on workers compensation premiums. Several asbestos programs were developed, as well as training for physicians and farmers on pesticide hazards, training for painters on solvent hazards, and training for cosmetologists on the hazards of beauty products.
In 1987 the MLGH, as a partner in the New England Consortium, received funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for development of and delivery of training for workers responding to and cleaning up hazardous waste emergencies and dump sites. We completed ten successful years of this grant, and now receive funding through DePaul University under the NIEHS grant.
The MLGH provides asbestos abatement training and hazardous materials training in the state of Maine. The MLGH was the first EPA full service approved provider of asbestos training in Northern New England. Thousands of workers have been trained in MLGH programs, including hundreds of school maintenance workers, firefighters, paperworkers, and many engineers and industrial hygienists.
In the last five years, we have become one of the largest trainers in lead abatement workers in Maine. The MLGH has also been conducting hazardous waste site training all over the country, including: Los Alamos; Hanford, WA: and Sacramento, CA. During the last decade, MLGH activities include:
- Expansion of the hazardous materials response program to provide more extensive training for firefighters and other emergency responders;
- Research into the causes of injury in the wood products industry, particularly ergonomic injuries;
- Development of initiatives in the Right to Know/Right to Refuse protection at the state and federal level, including an investigation of OSHA’s handling of cases involving workers who lost their jobs for reporting health and safety problems;
- Working on a contract with the Department of Environmental Protection to redraft the regulations which govern the asbestos abatement industry;
- Development and participation in MaineShare, a workplace giving campaign which offers an alternative to the United Way;
- Organize and participate with AFL-CIO each year in Workers Memorial Day, to commemorate workers who have died on the job and with a goal is to keep from adding to their number;
- Participated in the 1997 Dioxin Coalition for zero discharge of dioxin into Maine’s environment;
- Work for the expansion of the industries covered by the EPA’s Toxic Inventory List; and
- Worked in a successful coalition to re-authorize the Toxic Use Reduction legislation in 1999.
The MLGH has established a reputation in Maine as a provider of training, as an advocate for workers, and as a group committed to controlling health care costs. Funding currently comes from member dues, fee for service programs, federal and state grants and contracts, private foundation grants and MaineShare. Funding sources have included the US Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Maine Safety Education and Training Fund.