I applaud recent efforts by area bar owners, restaurateurs and the hospitality industry in York County to help create the opportunity for, and participate energetically in, informed debate on whether all indoor workplaces throughout York County should be 100 percent free of tobacco smoke.
I also applaud The Herald for its recent editorial that brought much needed further attention to the "compelling rationale" of worker protection from second-hand tobacco smoke and potential associated employer liability.
"So, what's the big deal?" you ask.
Turn the clock back 50 years.
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How many people living in our three-county area at that time (Chester, Lancaster, and York counties) found themselves becoming more and more short of breath while working hard to achieve daily production targets in our local cotton mills? Cotton dust particles? Yes, cotton dust particles -- inhaled only on the job, but day-in and day-out nonetheless. Who would have thought that so many local mill workers would become permanently disabled, and even die, from severely impaired lung function caused by accumulated cotton dust particles and constricted air passages deep in their lungs -- commonly known as Brown Lung Disease?
The evidence mounted among large numbers of politically disenfranchised but loyal mill workers. A survey of 230,000 of them in the late 1960s found 12 percent to 30 percent Brown Lung Disease levels in various textile plants across the United States. In 1970, the federal government first got involved in workplace safety and occupational health protection, and the Occupational Health & Safety Administration, or OSHA, was established. But it was not until eight years later that OSHA issued its first standard for limiting cotton dust exposure in the workplace.
Unfortunately, the "damage" (irreversible lung injury) had already been done to a great many loyal, trusting -- even unsuspecting -- textile mill workers. Between 1979 and 1996, an estimated 35,000 mill hands became disabled from Brown Lung Disease.
If you or your family have lived in this part of South Carolina for at least one generation, you probably can name at least one relative or close friend who was disabled or died as a direct result of Brown Lung Disease (also known as: Byssinosis and "Cotton Worker's Lung"). What is it like to die from Brown Lung Disease? Not pleasant, not pleasant at all -- especially when you realize that Brown Lung Disease is totally preventable, simply by properly reducing daily cotton dust exposure in the workplace.
Fast forward to summer 2007.
You read in your local newspaper about a popular 37-year-old professional musician in Columbia named Chris Conner, diagnosed with advanced lung cancer a few months earlier. Happily married with one young child, this "small-time," successful lead vocalist and songwriter decided to go public with details of his illness -- and about his regular and unavoidable second-hand tobacco smoke exposure on the job for the past 20 years.
Once he started cancer treatment, eliminating second-hand tobacco smoke exposure became a crucial part of Chris Conner's medical regimen. Being such a respected and beloved member of South Carolina's music community, Chris Conner observed first-hand as "compassionate" audiences, for whom he was continuing to perform, realized that his situation was "for real": When confronted with an indoor workplace that was not smoke free, Chris was forced to choose between his livelihood as a gifted musician and his health.
As a result, the newspaper story reports, for his remaining lifetime Chris decided that he would become an active spokesperson for 100 percent tobacco-smoke-free indoor workplaces to help prevent other South Carolina musicians and food and beverage servers, from having to choose between their livelihoods and their health. Sadly, Chris lost his battle with lung cancer on Nov. 21, the day before Thanksgiving, in Columbia, with family at his side.
So, compare for yourself: Severely-disabling Brown Lung Disease among cotton mill workers over the last 100 years; "unexplained" lung cancer among non-smoker airline attendants over the past 50 years; and "unexpected" lung cancer among young non-smoking musicians performing in today's smoky indoor restaurants and bars.
In a worker-safety context then, how can we in 21st century America, advanced society that we are, not insist on 100 percent worker protection from second-hand tobacco smoke when the scientific evidence and public health imperative are clearly there, staring us all in the face -- even unavoidably since the U.S. Surgeon General's report was widely publicized 18 months ago?
Consider also that the burdens of workplace-created illness historically have been borne completely by workers themselves and their families. But in the mid-20th century, industry and taxpayers began to assume varying amounts of responsibility for the economic costs of these burdens.
To wait any longer to make all indoor workplaces in our three-county area 100 percent tobacco-smoke free clearly discounts the major toll in human suffering and loss of life paid by many local families already as part of the societal delays in responding to the epidemic of Brown Lung Disease that characterized our state from the 1960s through the 1990s.
Finally, the future of our area's economy is all about a healthy, productive work force. Can we afford not to go tobacco-smoke free in all indoor workplaces in our three-county area as soon as possible?
If we are to count ourselves as informed, concerned, responsible citizens, then the time is now to contact all of the elected officials representing us at the local level, especially our city and county council members. Enough other areas of our country are taking action to protect employees from second-hand smoke in the indoor workplace that, since 2002, OSHA has taken the stance that these efforts should be allowed to continue without federal interference.
We must learn from our past. To wait any longer would be to tragically turn our heads on the price we've already paid in lost human life and livelihood over the past century in the Upstate of South Carolina to Brown Lung Disease, which so clearly in retrospect was totally preventable -- just like exposure to indoor second-hand tobacco smoke is now.
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