Fields Corner-based MassCOSH focuses on worker safety

When Marcy Goldstein-Gelb hears something described as a “freak accident,” a buzzer goes off in her head.

Executive director of the Dorchester-based Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), Goldstein-Gelb said many accidents described that way could have been predicted and avoided.

“In most cases, it has happened before and will happen again unless we do something,” said Goldstein-Gelb.

MassCOSH’s mission is to advocate for workers facing unsafe conditions, particularly teens and immigrants, who are the most vulnerable, according to Goldstein-Gelb.

Recently, the region had a stark reminder of the dangers of occupational hazards when Plymouth school custodian Chester Flattery, 53, died following exposure to what appeared to be hazardous materials at Manomet Elementary School. Ten others, including first responders and school employees were taken to the hospital for similar exposure during the July 7 incident.

In such cases, MassCOSH hopes to break the patterns of the dangerous condition and prevent such a situation from arising again.

“Our focus is on prevention, but when there is a serious incident, we want to respond immediately,” Goldstein-Gelb said.

She and her staff look into other school health incidents to look for similar incidents and try to get a message out to change conditions for next time.

In the case of the custodian, MassCOSH heard he had been working on the floors and that is something the organization has experience with, Goldstein-Gelb said. A group of Vietnamese workers in Dorchester died due to a floor finishing product that was extremely flammable.

MassCOSH worked successfully to get it banned.

They also work with unions and families, offering support as well as legal assistance during investigations, Goldstein-Gelb said.

“The family is in trauma and all kinds of things happen at once,” Goldstein-Gelb said. “Often the last thing they needed to think about is a funeral.”

MassCOSH worked to get a law passed to increase the burial benefits to families that of workers who lost their lives due to workplace accidents.

But it is important to strike a balance between advocacy and humanity, Goldstein-Gelb said.
“We’re not ambulance chasers and we don’t want to push ourselves on the family immediately,” she said.

Launched in 1976, with its first paid employee hired in 1980, MassCOSH tries to be the organization people call when there are work-related injuries or deaths, or simply unsafe working conditions, Goldstein-Gelb said.

While the organization works to support the state Department of Public Health, the Boston Public Health Commission and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, it also pushes them to work harder to make sure health and safety laws have teeth, Goldstein-Gelb said.

MassCOSH advocates for workers of all stripes, from day laborers to those with strong union representation, and even teen workers.

Goldstein-Gelb said unions help workers fight for safer conditions and that MassCOSH itself has a union for its employees.

“For us, as management, it’s been a very positive thing,” she said. “There’s clarity and transparency and there’s loyalty. We have staff that have been here for many years.”

Goldstein-Gelb got involved with MassCOSH after being a community organizer for several years. She previously wrote for a volunteer newspaper and had written about MassCOSH, and was offered a job in 1999.

“This has combined all of my greatest passions – worker rights, environmental health, popular education, and organizing health,” Goldstein-Gelb said.

There is no average day or week at the organization, she said. Now, during the summer months, teens are being trained as peer educators in worker safety and occupational health.

MassCOSH works in the schools with a Healthy Schools Program, bringing together students, teachers, and parents to look for environmental hazards in the school making it difficult for children to learn, Goldstein-Gelb said.

MassCOSH also holds community events. The next one will take place on Wed., Sept. 3, from 8 to 10 a.m. at 1532 Dorchester Avenue. A collaboration with Fields Corner Main Street, the event will focus on preventing retail violence and crime.

The free event will include a complimentary breakfast and feature lessons about identifying risks in a store, steps to prevent crime and keep employees safe, and procedures in the event of a robbery or other crime.