Members talk bargaining strategies, workplace violence, and short staffing at USW Health, Safety and Environment Conference

Last week, roughly 60 USW members who work across the health care sector attended the union’s Health, Safety and Environment Conference in Pittsburgh. The activists learned from each other, as well as experts, about how to tackle the unique challenges they face on the job.

For Julian Hernandez, who works as a distribution technician at St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley, Calif., the top priority heading into the conference as a first-timer was to gather as much knowledge as he could to bring back to the younger workers at his facility.

“A lot of the new folks don’t understand the importance of safety right away,” said Hernandez, who serves as chair of Local 183’s Next Gen Committee. “It will help us last longer and have longevity at the hospital.”

Local 183 is heading into negotiations next year, and Hernandez said hearing the different stories from other members’ campaigns during the panel on emerging health care issues inspired him to start organizing now. 

“It gave us a lot of insight into how we can be creative,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do and we have a whole year to get prepared.”

Tools for safety and solidarity

For the first time, the conference offered a full-day of workshops tailored to health care workers, including a session on ergonomics and safe patient handling that gave members the opportunity to test out medical equipment like chair lifts and other transfer devices.

President of Local 9600 Alyssa Stout, who works as an x-ray technician, said this hands-on experience was invaluable. “We actually got to learn the tools that can help us,” she said.

She also appreciated the workshop on workplace violence, an epidemic that research suggests has worsened considerably in recent years and is contributed to unsafe staffing.

“I think our field also has the most incidents of workplace violence because patients aren’t always in their right minds,” Stout said. “In many ways, it’s accepted that we’re just going to experience this.”

Local 9600, which includes roughly 750 members, worked tirelessly last year to win a good contract. One of the bargaining team’s top goals was the creation of a joint health and safety committee, which management initially outright rejected.

The local then launched a robust campaign, inevitably leading to the hospital agreeing to form the committee.

"We didn’t have a voice before this,” Stout said during the conference health care panel. “The committee has opened up a whole different way to hold them accountable. It’s also made management aware of problems they didn’t realize existed.”

On the conference’s last day, Local 9600 was presented with the USW Karen Silkwood Award for their relentless efforts to form the health and safety committee. This award is given to locals for union building and solidarity through health, safety and environment activism.

Preparing for the unexpected

Kim Corona of Local 1853 has been a paramedic for eight years, and she believes the fiercest challenge she and her fellow workers face is the unpredictability of the job.

“The term ‘safety’ is so broad, you can’t really peg down whether the biggest issue is weapons or family dynamics, because you never really know what you’re walking into,” Corona said.

Because of this, Corona is currently working with other USW members in multiple states on an emergency medical services (EMS) focus group, alongside the union’s Health Care Workers Council, Tony Mazzocchi Center, and the Health, Safety and Environment Department.

Corona also wants to focus more on mental health and made sure to attend classes at the conference that focused on that particular challenge. The U.S. Department of Health estimates that 30 percent of first responders develop behavioral health conditions, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as compared with 20 percent in the general population.

“It’s a huge concern in our industry,” said Corona. “As first responders, we have nothing implemented and we need to try to get ahead of the game so we don’t have to worry about it in the future.”

Click here to view photos from this year’s Health, Safety and Environment Conference.

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