Putting stories behind the stats: Carol Brown reflects on lessons learned at WestONOct 25, 2023
Occupational safety and health is a field that focuses on improving the safety, health and well-being of workers. So often the burden of occupational hazards is reported in numbers – number of illnesses, number of injuries, number of incidents. It is easy for people to gloss over those numbers and to fail to grasp the meaning behind them.
The presenters at WestON have always focused on the stories of the people behind the numbers.
The Western States Occupational Network (WestON) was co-developed and is co-hosted by the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Western States Division, and the Center for Health, Work & Environment. Our center hosted the WestON 14th annual meeting at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus on September 28-29, 2023. Each year we focus on occupational safety and health (OSH) challenges that are unique to the western United States and seek to build capacity for state-based occupational health epidemiologists and administrators.
This is one of my favorite professional meetings to help plan and to attend each year because of the focus on people. This starts with the people in the room (including those attending virtually), some new, and some of whom have attended WestON since its inception. WestON attendees are passionate about their work and protecting worker safety and health. They are curious, ready to learn, and always eager to make new professional connections across other western states. In fact, I witnessed the first new professional connection between two attendees during opening remarks!
This year, the focus on people and their stories continued with the keynote presentation by Alex Hall of KQED News. We were moved by her story of protein processing plant workers whose health was jeopardized and lives were discounted during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you hear that a worker is killed at their job, it is tragic. When you learn about that person, it humanizes the number of fatalities reported on and makes people take notice. It is not only the workers who are impacted by unsafe workplace conditions—the consequences extend to workers’ families and communities when they are injured, made ill, or killed on the job.
It is clear from listening to the presentations at this year’s WestON meeting that OSH work does not happen in a vacuum. Many presentations not only highlighted the science behind studying occupational exposures, but how that knowledge goes back to the workers, industries and unions to improve working conditions.
The attendees at WestON are committed to using their voices and professional and personal networks to elevate their message. Presentations covered diverse topics such as precarious employment, sleep and shiftwork, respiratory diseases, impacts of climate on work, and occupational health surveillance. It is amazing to see the connections between these seemingly unrelated topics. When attendees learn how one colleague made data systems talk to one another or how they found the right person to collaborate with on any particular topic—the how behind the work is often as interesting and important as the results that are presented.
I always leave WestON having learned new things and made new connections to OSH professionals that I can call on when working through a vexing OSH challenge. WestON 2024 promises to be another great people-focused meeting!
Written by Carol Brown, PhD, deputy director at the Center for Health, Wok & Environment at the Colorado School of Public Health.