Print this page
Sunday, 23 January 2011 22:19

Worker Education and Environmental Improvement

Written by
Rate this item
(0 votes)

The articles in this chapter have thus far concentrated on training and education regarding workplace hazards. Environmental education serves multiple purposes and is a useful complement to occupational safety and health training. Worker education is a critical and often overlooked aspect of a broad and effective environmental protection strategy. Environmental issues are frequently viewed as purely technological or scientific matters that stand outside the purview of workers. Yet worker knowledge is critical to any effective environmental solutions. Workers are concerned as citizens and as employees about environmental matters because the environment shapes their lives and affects their communities and families. Even when technological solutions are required that use new hardware, software or process approaches, worker commitment and competence are necessary for their effective implementation. This is true for workers whether involved directly in environmental industries and occupations or in other kinds of jobs and industrial sectors.

Worker education can also provide a conceptual foundation to enhance workers’ participation in environmental improvement, health and safety protection, and organizational improvement. The UNEP Industry and Environment Programme notes that “many companies have found that worker involvement in environmental improvement can yield important benefits” (UNEP 1993). The Cornell Work and Environment Initiative (WEI) in a study of US enterprises found that intense worker participation yielded triple the source reduction of technical or external solutions alone and boosted yields of some technological approaches even higher (Bunge et al. 1995).

Worker environmental education comes in a variety of forms. These include trade union awareness and education, occupational training and orientation, connecting environment to workplace health and safety concerns and broad awareness as citizens. Such education occurs in a range of venues including worksites, trade union halls, classrooms and study circles, using both traditional and newer computer-based delivery systems. It is fair to say that workers’ environmental education is an underdeveloped field, especially in comparison with managerial and technical training and school-based environmental education. At the international level, education of front-line workers is often mentioned in passing and is overlooked when it comes to implementation. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions has commissioned a series of studies on the educational dimension of environmental protection, and in its next programme of work will directly look at the shop-floor workers and their environmental educational needs.

What follows are several examples gathered through the WEI at Cornell University that illustrate both practice and possibility in worker environmental education.The WEI is a network of managers, trade unionists, environmentalists and government policy officials from 48 countries in all parts of the world, committed to finding ways that workers and the workplace can contribute to environmental solutions. It addresses a wide range of industries from primary extraction to production, service and public-sector enterprises. It provides a means for education and action on environmental matters that seeks to build knowledge at the workplace and in academic institutions that can lead to cleaner and more productive workplaces and better connection between internal and external environments.

Australia: Eco-Skills Modules

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has developed new approaches to workers’ education for the environment that provides both broad social awareness and specific competencies for employment, especially among young workers.

The ACTU has organized an Environment Training Company with a broad mandate to address a variety of sectors but with an initial focus on land management issues. This focus includes teaching ways to handle reclamation work safely and effectively but also ways to assure compatibility with indigenous peoples and natural environments. With input from trade unionists, environmentalists and employers, the training company developed a set of “Eco-Skills” modules to establish basic environmental literacy among workers from an array of industries. These are integrated with a set of skill competencies that are technical, social and safety oriented.

Eco-Skills modules 1 and 2 contain a broad base of environmental information. They are taught alongside other entry-level training programmes. Levels 3 and higher are taught to people who specialize in work focused on reduction of environmental impacts. The first two Eco-Skills modules are composed of two forty-hour sessions. Trainees attain skills through lectures, group problem-solving sessions and practical hands-on techniques. Workers are assessed through written and oral presentations, group work and role plays.

Concepts covered in the sessions include an introduction to the principles of ecologically sustainable development, efficient resource use and cleaner production and environmental management systems. Once Module 1 is completed workers should be able to:

  • identify the implications of a given lifestyle for long-term sustainability with specific emphasis placed on the learner’s present and future lifestyle
  • identify ways to reduce the environmental impact of human activities
  • describe strategies to reduce environmental impacts in a given industry (agriculture, forestry, manufacturing, tourism, leisure, mining)
  • describe the main features of an Environmental Management System
  • identify the role of stakeholders in reducing environmental pollution and resource depletion.

 

Module 2 expands upon these initial objectives and prepares workers to begin applying pollution prevention and resource conservation methods.

Some industries are interested in connecting environmental impact skills and knowledge to their industry standards at every level. Awareness of environmental issues would be reflected in the day-to-day work of all industry workers at all skill levels. An incentive for workers lies in the fact that pay rates are linked to industry standards. The Australian experiment is in its infancy, but it is a clear attempt to work with all parties to develop competency-based activities that lead to increased and safer employment while enhancing environmental performance and awareness.

Linking Occupational Health and Safety and Environmental Training

One of the most active unions in the United States in environmental training is the Laborers International Union of North American (LIUNA). US government regulations require that hazardous-waste abatement workers receive 40 hours of training. The union along with participating contractors have developed an intensive 80-hour course designed to provide potential hazardous-waste workers with greater awareness of safety and the industry. In 1995, over 15,000 workers were trained in lead, asbestos and other hazardous-waste abatement and other environmental remediation work. The Laborers–Associated General Contractors programme has developed 14 environmental remediation courses and associated train-the-trainer programmes to assist nationwide efforts at safe and quality remediation. These are conducted at 32 training sites and four mobile units.

In addition to providing safety and technical training, the programme encourages participants to think about larger environmental issues. As part of their classwork, trainees gather materials from local papers on environmental issues and use this local connection as an opening to discuss broader environmental challenges. This joint environmental training fund employs a full-time equivalent staff of 19 at its central office and spends over US$10 million. The materials and training methods meet high quality standards with extensive use of audio-visual and other training aids, specific competency focus, and quality commitment and assessment built in throughout the curricula. A “learn-at-home” video is used to help meet literacy concerns and environmental and basic literacy training are connected. For those who desire it, six of the courses are transferable into college credit. The programme is active in serving minority communities, and over half of the participants come from minority population groups. Additional programmes are developed in partnership with minority consortiums, public housing projects and other training providers.

The union understands that a great deal of its future membership will come in environmentally related businesses and sees the development of worker education programmes as building the foundation for that growth. While both safety and productivity are better on jobs using trained workers, the union also sees the broader impact:

The most interesting impact environmental training has had on members is their increased respect for chemicals and harmful substances in the workplace and at home. … Awareness is also increasing with respect to the consequences of continued pollution and the cost involved with cleaning up the environment. … The true impact is much greater than just preparing people for work (LIUNA 1995).

In the United States, such hazardous-materials training is also conducted by the Operating Engineers; Painters; Carpenters; Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers; Chemical Workers Union; Machinists; Teamsters; Ironworkers and Steelworkers.

LIUNA is also working internationally with the Mexican Confederation of Workers (CTM), federal and private training groups and employers to develop training methodologies. The focus is on training Mexican workers in environmental remediation work and construction skills. The Inter-American Partnership for Environmental Education and Training (IPEET) held its first training course for Mexican workers during the summer of 1994 in Mexico City. A number of labour leaders and workers from local industries, including paint manufacturing and metal plating, attended the one-week course on environmental safety and health. Other LIUNA partnerships are being developed in Canada with French editions of the materials and “Canadianization” of the content. The European Institute for Environmental Education and Training is also a partner for similar training in Eastern European and CIS countries.

Zambia: Educational Manual on Occupational Health and Safety

In Zambia, too often occupational health and safety is taken seriously only when there is an incident involving injury or damage to company property. Environmental issues are also ignored by industry. The Manual on Occupational Health and Safety was written in an effort to educate employees and employers on the importance of occupational health and safety issues.

The first chapter of this manual outlines the importance of education at all levels in a company. Supervisors are expected to understand their role in creating safe, healthy working conditions. Workers are taught how maintaining a positive, cooperative attitude relates to their own safety and work environment.

The manual specifically addresses environmental issues, noting that all major towns in Zambia face

threats of increasing environmental damage. In specific, the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) identified environmental hazards in the mining industry through strip mining and air and water pollution that results from poor practices. Many factories are responsible for air and water pollution because they discharge their waste directly into nearby streams and rivers and allow smoke and fumes to escape unchecked into the atmosphere (ZCTU 1994).

Though many African trade unions are interested in further education on the environment, lack of adequate funding for worker education and the need for materials that link environmental, community and workplace hazards are major barriers.

Employer-Based Worker Environmental Education and Training

Employers, especially larger ones, have extensive environmental education activities. In many cases, these are mandated training linked to occupational or environmental safety requirements. However, an increasing number of companies recognize the power of broad worker education that goes well beyond compliance training. The Royal Dutch/Shell Group of companies have made health, safety and environment (HSE) part of their overall approach to training, and environment is an integral part of all management decisions (Bright and van Lamsweerde 1995). This is a global practice and mandate. One of the company’s goals is to define HSE competencies for appropriate jobs. Worker competence is developed through improved awareness, knowledge and skill. Appropriate training will increase worker awareness and knowledge, and skills will develop as new knowledge is applied. A wide range of delivery techniques helps share and reinforce the environmental message and learning.

At Duquesne Light in the United States, all 3,900 employees were successfully trained “on how the company and its employees actually affect the environment.” William DeLeo, Vice-President of Environmental Affairs said:

To develop a training programme that enabled us to meet out strategic objectives we determined that our employees needed a general awareness of the importance of environmental protection as well as specific technical training relative to their job responsibilities. These two points became the guiding strategy for our environmental education program (Cavanaugh 1994).

Worker and Union-Based Environmental Education Programmes

The Workers’ Education Branch of the ILO has developed a six-booklet set of background materials to spark discussion among trade unionists and others. The booklets address workers and the environment, the workplace and the environment, the community and the environment, world environmental issues, the new bargaining agenda, and provide a guide to resources and a glossary of terms. They provide a broad, insightful and easy-to-read approach that can be used in both developing and industrial countries to discuss topics relevant to workers. The materials are based on specific projects in Asia, the Caribbean and Southern Africa, and can be used as a whole text or can be separated in a study circle format to promote general dialogue.

The ILO in a review of training needs pointed out:

Trade unionists must increase their awareness about environmental concerns in general and the impact their employing firms are having on the environment, including the safety and health of their workers, in particular. Trade unions and their members need to understand environmental issues, the consequences that environmental hazards have on their members and the community at large, and be able to develop sustainable solutions in their negotiations with company management and employers’ organizations. (ILO 1991.)

The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions has observed:

Local trade unions and other employee representatives are in a particularly difficult situation. They will have the relevant knowledge of the local situation and the workplace but will, in most cases, not be sufficiently specialised in complex environmental and strategic issues.

They will, therefore, be unable to exercise their functions unless they received additional and specialised training. (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions 1993.)

A number of national unions have urged increased workers’ education on the environment. Included among them is the LO in Sweden, whose 1991 Environmental Programme called both for more education and action at the workplace and for additional study circle material on the environment to promote awareness and learning. The Manufacturing Workers Union in Australia has developed a training course and set of materials to assist the union in providing environmental leadership, including how to address environmental issues through collective bargaining.

Summary

Good worker-based environmental education provides both conceptual and technical information to workers that assists them in increasing environmental awareness and in learning concrete ways to change work practices that are damaging to the environment. These programmes also learn from workers at the same time to build on their awareness, reflection and insight about workplace environmental practice.

Workplace environmental education is best done when it is connected to community and global environmental challenges so that workers have a clear idea of how the ways they work are connected to the overall environment and how they can contribute to a cleaner workplace and global ecosystem.

 

Back

Read 3744 times Last modified on Friday, 17 June 2011 14:02