Paul Landsbergis, PhD, MPH, EdD — Contributing Researcher and Blog Writer

“Working on Empty” (WOE) is a transmedia project on declining American worker health, poor work-life culture, and the laws, policies, and workplace practices that perpetuate these conditions.

___________________________________________________________________Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Queens, NY, early on, it became clear to me that some people have a lot more opportunities in life than others. But, what I didn’t understand as a child, was how these opportunities (or lack thereof) played out in adulthood not only in working conditions, but in health as well.

“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” -Bruce Springsteen.

I began to learn about the health problems that can be caused by hazardous and stressful work after I started working with various labor unions, including jobs at the Rutgers University Labor Education Center and Rutgers Medical School. And, of course, there were the work stressors that my family and I were facing. At Rutgers, I helped develop education programs jointly with unions for their members on workplace safety and health. I went to school part-time to get a Doctor of Education in Labor Studies. This included coursework and research on labor union history, physical and chemical workplace hazards, and work stress. I met a pioneer in the field of work stress, Robert Karasek, who helped guide me in my dissertation research on the stresses faced by hospital and nursing home workers.

Later, I met another work stress pioneer, WOE Executive Producer Peter Schnall, who also was committed to improving workers’ safety and health, including dealing with the enormous problem of stressful work. We became friends and colleagues, and conducted research together at Cornell Medical School, using state-of-the-art portable blood pressure monitors, on how demanding jobs where workers have little say on the job or few opportunities to use their skills (“job strain”) can increase blood pressure and increase risk of “masked” or “hidden hypertension” (that is, people with normal blood pressure in the doctor’s office but high blood pressure during their normal daily activities).

I also went back to school part-time for a PhD in Epidemiology at Columbia University. Since then, I’ve been able to teach, conduct research, and continue to work closely with workers and unions, first at the Mount Sinai Selikoff Centers for Occupational Health and then at the SUNY-Downstate School of Public Health in New York. Additionally, with Peter and the wonderful group of educators and scientists involved in WOE, as well as other colleagues, we produced two textbooks, “The Workplace and Cardiovascular Disease” (2000) and “Unhealthy Work” (2009).

One important finding of our and others’ research is that hazardous and stressful working conditions and the health problems they cause are not equally shared by all. Some groups of people, because of their race, ethnicity, immigration status, gender or social class, due to limited opportunities or discrimination, face more work hazards, including stress on the job, and have a greater chance of developing injuries and chronic disease. For example, my research showed that “job strain” had a bigger impact on the blood pressure of working men if they were also in lower income or lower status jobs.

Such “occupational health inequalities” mean that we not only need to reduce “work hazards” (risk of being injured, chemical hazards, risk of catching an infectious disease, physical demands of the job and work stressors), but, for the sake of fairness and justice, we also need to reduce the work hazard and health inequalities between groups of workers.

I’ve been very fortunate to be able to work closely over the years with unions representing bus drivers, teachers, hospital workers, government employees, air traffic controllers, locomotive engineers, railroad maintenance workers, social service workers, autoworkers, steelworkers, parole officers, sanitation workers, mail handlers, restaurant workers and World Trade Center rescue and recovery workers. And, I’ve also been fortunate to work with many colleagues in other countries — including: the Labor Institute for Work, Environment and Health in Spain, faculty in Beijing interested in work organization and cardiovascular disease, and occupational health and occupational stress researchers in Brazil and Mexico.

“We wanted a world in which everyone’s work was honored and every voice heard.” -Barbara Ehrenreich

I am a proud member of United University Professions, which is affiliated with New York State United Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers. And I am also proud to be a part of other organizations that are committed to improving worker health and safety, such as the Occupational Health and Safety section of the American Public Health Association, the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, and Committees for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH groups). With their help, I’ve learned over my career that improving working conditions, reducing work stressors and improving worker health are possible — if the efforts are based on science, on listening to workers’ concerns, and on developing strategies jointly with workers and unions to improve working conditions. Such strategies include participatory research, worker education, union and community organizing, collective bargaining, worker cooperatives, and laws and regulations.

In the difficult times we’re living in, we need to redouble our efforts to carry out such strategies, to improve working conditions, and to make sure they are improving the health of employees. I want to be sure that the kids living now in my old neighborhood have a real chance at achieving healthy work and a decent life.

I look forward to developing WOE, and working with all of you to help make the world a healthier place for us and for future generations — not the least of which, my greatest motivation, my 3-year old daughter, Aylin.

To support the WOE movement:

With your help, we will have created more than hope — we’ll have cemented lasting, positive change in the name of healthy working conditions.

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Paul Landsbergis, PhD, MPH, EdD, WOE Contributing Researcher and Blog Writer, has been a Research Associate with the Center for Social Epidemiology since its foundation in 1988. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences of the State University of New York (SUNY)-Downstate School of Public Health and is Deputy Editor of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. (LinkedIn, Twitter, SUNY Downstate Faculty)