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“It’s been an honor to have the opportunity from the union and membership to help them go home safe.”
– Steve Mitchell,
UAW Local 974 member
A job well done – when nothing happens
The UAW has always been at the vanguard of health and safety in the workplace, making sure workers, through education and training, perform the highest quality work in an environment as safe as possible.
That’s why being honored by the nation’s oldest and largest organization of health professionals makes sense when it comes to the work of Steve Mitchell, health and safety representative for UAW Local 974. Mitchell has been a key member of that UAW vanguard for 20 years as the local’s health and safety representative at Caterpillar Inc. Technical Research Center in Mossville, Ill., just north of Peoria. Local 974 is an amalgamated local, representing about 5,000 workers, most of them at Caterpillar.
Mitchell, 53, lives in Dunlap, Ill. He’s a married father of two children ages 27 and 24, has been a welder at the Caterpillar center for 35 years and says he’s always had an interest in health and safety in the workplace. On Nov. 9, Mitchell will be honored with an award named after one of the nation’s most admired figures in occupational health and safety: the 2010 Tony Mazzocchi Award from the American of Public Health Association (APHA) at a ceremony in Denver. The APHA says Mazzocchi was the most influential labor leader in the occupational health and safety field in the United States, playing a key role in the legislative struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, including passage of the landmark 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). The award gives recognition to grassroots health and safety activists in local unions or other local organizations fighting for the health and safety rights of workers.
“Mazzocchi was a dynamo,” said Mitchell. “He was a driving force, along with others, in getting OSHA enacted. I was so humbled to even be mentioned in the same sentence as a guy like him. He’s a giant in the world of health and safety,” he said.
The APHA said Mitchell is getting the award for being a role model for other trainers in defining health and safety standards, and for activities during a labor dispute with Caterpillar that resulted in a court decision mandating his right as the health and safety representative to accompany OSHA inspectors into his workplace while the company was using scabs to replace striking union workers. APHA also commended Mitchell for his work in 2002 negotiations that help create improvements in health and safety contract language, for the respect he has earned from workers and management alike, for continually sharing his knowledge and skills, and for his influence on other peer trainers that has helped advance the professionalism of health and safety representatives in the labor movement.
Mitchell’s decades of commitment to preventing injuries and health problems in the workplace also stem from a desire to make life better for workers.
“I didn’t like seeing people get hurt,” he said. “I’m a skilled-trades welder, and there had been a number of injuries where I worked.
“It’s a research and development facility, so you never do the same thing twice, making it a hard place to engineer out a lot of hazards. I saw fingers cut off in saws, broken bones, cuts, burns, lots of different of injuries,” added Mitchell, who even saw a good friend fall to his death 10 years ago.
“The only thing that causes injuries and illness is exposure to hazards. If you control employee exposure to hazards, you can control the injuries,” he said. “The employer is responsible under the law to make sure the workplace is free of recognizable hazards, but often they’re willing to hand that responsibility to workers.”
That’s where the UAW comes in.
“If you are an at-will employee, there’s no way you could take steps to prevent injuries because you’d be fired,” he said. “It’s the members of our union – not me as a safety representative – who have power to force the company to make changes to improve the workplace. They allow people like me to get educated and be able to help them have a better work life.”
And it’s always up to the workers, said Mitchell. “If a worker sees something, he or she should follow whatever procedure there is to get it looked at,” he said.
Mitchell said he’s deeply honored to receive the award. for his years of health and safety service. He knows his job is done well when nothing happens – no injuries.
“You don’t know the impact you’ve made because something doesn’t happen,” said Mitchell. “It’s been an honor to have the opportunity from the union and membership to help them go home safe.”