Can Inmate-Workers Take Actions That Promote Workplace Health and Safety?

Photo: Inmate-workers during a training session.
Inmate-workers during a training session.
Photo Courtesy of CA Prison Industries

Written by Robin Dewey, MPH
LOHP’s Coordinator of Public Programs

Since its inception in 2004, the state-wide Worker Occupational Safety and Health Training and Education Program (WOSHTEP) has served roughly 14,000 workers and 1,660 employers through its many programs designed to reduce work-related injuries and illnesses among California’s workers. WOSHTEP is funded by the state’s Commission on Health and Safety and Workers’ Compensation and administered by resource centers at the Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP) at UC Berkeley, the Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program (LOSH) at UCLA, and the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (WCAHS) at UC Davis.

One WOSHTEP program, the Worker Occupational Safety and Health Specialist program, seeks to prepare worker leaders to take an active role in identifying hazards in their workplaces and proposing solutions. Participants are required to successfully complete 24 hours of training conducted by LOHP, LOSH, or WCAHS staff in order to be recognized as WOSH Specialists. To date, nearly 3,700 WOSH Specialists have been trained in Northern, Central, and Southern California.

LOHP, LOSH, and WCAHS staff also train trainers outside the three university programs to teach the WOSH Specialist class. A couple of these trainers are from California Prison Industries Authority who teach the class to their inmate-workers. But can inmate-workers actually take a leadership role in the prison environment? Can they identify problems and advocate for solutions? It turns out they can. LOHP recently received a heart-felt letter from a Soledad Prison inmate-worker who had attended the WOSH Specialist class describing what the class meant to him and how he was able to use the skills he gained. The inmate explained that the class, conducted using participatory training methods, gave him the first chance he ever had to work in small groups to solve problems. After the class was over, he inspected his wood shop and noticed that several people were using compressed air to clean up, causing a lot of airborne dust and the potential for eye injuries. He recommended that the group begin sweeping debris with a broom instead, and now all the inmate-workers in that shop come together each day at a specific time to clean. “I noticed how when working together to achieve a common goal, it not only became a safer place to work but prompted camaraderie as well. The results of my inspection and problem-solving are so impressive that it left me filled with pride knowing that I am now an integral part of creating a safer workplace.”

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