AJN Article - July, 2002: Environmental and Occupational Health Coalitions

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Health & Safety

American Journal of Nursing - July, 2002 - Volume 102, Issue 7

Environmental and Occupational Health Coalitions
Taking action for healthier workplaces and communities.

By Susan Wilburn, MPH, RN

Does your community have a rising rate of childhood asthma? Are there clusters of cancers? Do you live near a hazardous waste site? Are you concerned about the spraying of pesticides near your children’s schools?

To learn about local health risks and how to take action, join forces with the environmental health coalitions in your community. Environmental health coalitions are groups of activists working together to identify the environmental causes of illnesses an… advocate for change. Committees for occupational safety and health provide education and technical health and safety services (see Health and Safety, March, or visit the ANA Health and Safety Web site at www.NursingWorld.org/rnnoharm/.

Nurses can play a special role in these organizations because they have the skills needed for successful coalition work: health knowledge, political savvy, and the ability to listen to the points of view of others in the effort to find common ground. Nurses also can lend strong credibility to a coalition because they are among the most trusted professionals: in a 2001 Gallup poll, nurses were rated second in ethics and honesty, surpassed only by firefighters.

The ANA belongs to several coalitions. For example, the ANA and many of its constituent state nurses associations have been active for five years in Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), a coalition whose mission is “to transform the health. care industry woýldwide, without compromising patient safety or care, so that it is ecologically sustainable and no longer a source of harm to public health and the environment.” The ANA joined this coalition in 1997 when its House of Delegates passed a resolution calling for action on the pollution caused by the health care industry. HCWH is also focused on workplace health and safety, thanks to the leadership role nurses have taken in educating other coalition members about occupational hazards in the health care industry and the risk of shifting exposures to hazardous substances from the community onto the worker.

Then the ANA first joined HCWH, the coalition successfully lobbied the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the development of the first clean air rules for medical waste incinerators, which were implemented in 1998. Recently, this collaborative work became more institutionalized with the creation of a new partnership: Hospitals for a Healthy Environment (H2E), which includes the American Hospital Association (AHA) and the EPA, as well as the ANA and HCWH.

H2E’s goal is to advance pollution-prevention efforts in hospitals, and it’s getting results. At the April 2002 AHA convention, H2E presented its first environmental leadership awards to three hospitals in New York, Michigan, and Oregon. The awards recognized the beneficial changes the hospitals made in product procurement, handling, and the disposal—changes that not only reduced the volume and toxicity of the waste produced, but protected the occupational health and safety of the workers. For example, Kaiser Permanente in Oregon was recognized for eliminating mercury, reducing waste, and eliminating gloves made from natural rubber latex and vinyl to protect workers, patients, and the environment.

See the resource list above for occupational and environmental health contacts. By joining a coalition, you can effect positive change in your community’s health. An additional bonus is the lasting relationships that are built from working together toward a common goal. These relationships build alliances beyond the health care industry that could be invaluable in working toward the successful resolution of other nursing issues.


The ANA’s Health and Safety Web page:

Childproofing Our Community:

Children’s Environmental Health Network:


Health Care Without Harm:

Hospitals for a Healthy Environment:

New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health:

University of Maryland Environmental Health Site for Nurses:

Susan Wilburn is a senior specialist, occupational safety and health, at the ANA.