We may take today’s federal worker protections for granted, but the American worker has not always been entitled to a hazard-free workplace. For that, we have the Occupational Safety and Health Act and a humble but mighty woman named Susan E. Harwood to thank.
During the 1960’s, the U.S. economic climate saw exponential growth in the workforce and increased diversity among workers. More workers meant an increased incidence of accidents and injuries on the job. On February 1, 1968, two sanitation workers named Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death in a garbage compactor, an incident that led to a sanitation workers’ strike and, ultimately, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. That same year, President Lyndon Johnson expressed his concern for the American worker in a message to Congress, stating:
“It is to the shame of a modern industrial nation which prides itself on the productivity of its workers, that each year:
- 14,500 workers are killed on the job.
- 2.2 million workers are injured.
- 250 million man-days of productivity are wasted.
- $1.5 billion in wages are lost.
- The result: a loss of $5 billion to the economy.”
Congress responded in 1970 with the Occupational Safety and Health Act, enacted to protect workers from hazardous working conditions. In its first year, OSHA adapted numerous existing industry standards and, over the next ten years, developed new standards on things such as asbestos, construction safety, emissions, vinyl chloride, as well as fourteen other known carcinogens. These standards would protect workers in high-hazard industries from iron and steel manufacturing to those involved in cotton production.
This was a good sign; however, the standards and regulations written to protect workers were written in technical language that was difficult for workers and employers to interpret.
Therefore, in 1978, OSHA established a discretionary grant program called New Directions: a compliance-assistance program that provided funding for “in-person, hands-on training and resources, educational programs, and guidance on creating training materials.” Through the initiative, workers received training and information about hazardous work conditions, prevention, and rights under the OSH Act. In 1997, the New Directions program was renamed in memory of Dr. Susan Harwood.
So, who was Susan Harwood?
According to those who knew her best, Dr. Harwood had a combination of a good work ethic, strong leadership skills, and a steadfast commitment to the well-being of others. In a 1988 congressional testimony, she remarked, “the thing that keeps me awake at night is the idea of people dying unnecessarily.”
Originally from Jackson, Tennessee, Susan Harwood was born at the dawn of the baby boomer era, in October 1945. She called Tennessee home through college and graduate school, earning her master’s in biology from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 1969. She then moved to North Carolina where she earned her Ph.D. in virology and microbiology, her postdoctoral work focusing on cancer research and immunology. After two years working as Assistant Professor of Biology at Stephen F. Austin University, Dr. Harwood received a leave of absence and moved on to work with the OSHA Office of Health Standards.
From the get-go, Susan’s background in biology and experience in cancer research underscored her work at OSHA. Throughout her 17-year career with OSHA, Susan would go on to develop guidelines for benzene, formaldehyde, bloodborne pathogens, and lead in construction. She was the primary author of the pivotal cotton dust standard which virtually eliminated byssinosis – a lung disease that causes asthma-like symptoms – among textile workers.
In 1987, OSHA issued the Field Sanitation Standard, for which Dr. Harwood was the lead writer. It brought basic hygiene protection to farm workers. The standard requires employers to “provide workers engaged in hand-labor operations with sufficient potable drinking water, toilets and handwashing facilities.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, the workplace has been getting progressively safer ever since OSHA and all subsequent standards were put into place. OSHA.gov goes on record as saying that workplace fatalities have declined from 14,000 in the year 1970 to just 4,340 in 2009. This, even as the number of people in the workforce has more than doubled.
Sadly, Susan passed away in April 1996 from liver cancer. Susan was immensely dedicated to her work and often mentored young scientists. According to Elisa Braver, an OSHA colleague mentored by Susan, the fact that a major federal training program was named in her honor demonstrates “the high esteem and affection in which she was held by her colleagues at the Agency.” 
Between 2000 and 2017, nearly 1.5 million workers received training through the Susan Harwood Grant. In 2018, 74 organizations shared the annual $10.5 million grant to provide targeted topic training, education, and training materials development.
AFOP Health & Safety has been a crucial part of this legacy. Since 2010, our growing network of trainers and partner organizations has trained, on average, 16,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers in heat stress awareness per year. That’s 43 per day! Susan E Harwood grant funds have also enabled us to provide bilingual trainings in multiple languages – including Spanish, Haitian-Creole, Burmese and Mixteco – and on multiple topics, including tractor safety, pesticide exposure, and an early education outreach initiative.
As a result, the community of workers, employers, and their families are better informed and prepared to recognize the symptoms of heat stress-related illness, exposure to pesticides, and many other potential workplace hazards. That’s all thanks to Dr. Susan E. Harwood, a hard-working but relatively unknown woman whose legacy of advocacy and compassion lives on through the improved opportunity and well-being of workers today.
 “Death of Echol Cole and Robert Walker.” Wikipedia, Date accessed 16. Jan. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Echol_Cole_and_Robert_Walker
 Lyndon B. Johnson. “Message from the President.” Congressional Record – House, US Government Publishing Office, 23. January 1968, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-CRECB-1968-pt1/pdf/GPO-CRECB-1968-pt1-7-2.pdf.
“Timeline of OSHA’s 40 Year History.” Occupational Health & Safety Administration, United States Department of Labor, Date accessed 16 Jan. 2019, https://www.osha.gov/osha40/timeline.html.
 Braver, Elisa “Re: Susan Harwood.” Message to Pilar Sauber. 4 December 2018. E-mail.
What an insightful article!
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Thanks, Vivian! Amazingly, Pilar worked with former co-workers of Susan Harwood, so she really had the inside scoop!
I met Susan at summer school at University of Tennessee Martin in 1966. We were friends who both enjoyed science and hanging out. She tried out for and got a part in the Fall play, “Look Homeward Angel”. I worked in costumes and props for the play. As part of her costume, I found a wire mesh purse which was very popular in the era of the play. At the end of the play, I purchased it for Susan. She loved it. Susan was a genius, no doubt. Our country has been blessed to have such a woman who dedicated her life to finding ways to cure the ills of industry and the forgotten people who put food on our tables..
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Great article. Many thanks for writing and sharing this!