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Smoke-free Skies: A Labor Day Story

Smoke-free Skies: A Labor Day Story

Most of us think of Labor Day as a day to rest from the labor associated with our jobs—a day off not unlike many other national holidays. However, it is becoming increasingly important for us understand the purpose and value of this national moment of reflection on the indispensible engines of our economy: the workers. The American labor movement of the 19th century gave rise to many of the workplace rights and privileges we enjoy today, including the right to safe, healthy work environments—wherever those workplaces might be.

Three years ago we commemorated the 25th anniversary of “smoke-free skies”. The winter of 1990 saw the passage of legislation that removed smoking on domestic flights in the United States—a watershed moment that led to cleaner air on all flights to and from the U.S. and smoke-free policies on airlines worldwide.

This landmark change in policy that was led by flight attendants from across the country and helped open the door for other workers, including bartenders, musicians, and casino employees, to advocate for smoke-free policies that protect workers from the serious health hazards of secondhand smoke exposure.

In an interview with the University of Alabama’s Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society, former flight attendant Patty Young recalled, “I would wipe my face with a Kleenex because my eyes were watering and burning all the time.  It always looked like I was wiping up a coffee stain, and it was the nicotine.  My tears were the color of coffee, and my mucus was the color of coffee. That’s how much tobacco smoke went past my face and my body…”

Much like the demand for better working conditions for laborers in the 1800s, the call for a safer, healthier work environment for flight attendants did not come as a legislative windfall. It took the work of a strong coalition of determined advocates, allies, and organizations to secure this protection for flight crews.

Among them was the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA). In a New York Times article, international president of the AFA, Sara Nelson, spoke to her organization’s intense involvement in the historic push to create smoke-free flights. “For us this was a workplace issue; we had members who were experiencing shortness of breath and all of the problems created by secondhand smoke, up to and including deadly diseases like lung cancer. We really were the tipping point that allowed for smoke-free workplaces in this country.”

As monumental as this decision was, it has not translated into protecting the flight crews, staff, and passengers in some of our nation’s airports today, particularly the millions who come through Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta every year.

The Atlanta airport is continually named the world’s busiest in terms of passenger traffic and is the largest job site in the state with some 63,000 employees. Of the five busiest airports in the country, Hartsfield-Jackson is the only one that still allows indoor smoking. Studies by the Centers for Disease Control found that air pollution levels from secondhand smoke outside of airport smoking areas were five times higher than levels at smoke-free airports and were 23 times higher inside the smoking area.

The threat of ongoing involuntary exposure to secondhand smoke for airport employees is a real and serious health risk. There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, and for some airport employees, it is an everyday occurrence. These workers deserve safe, healthy work environments. They deserve to be protected from the dangers of secondhand smoke.

If you are interested in supporting the movement to protect workers’ right to safe, healthy work environments free from exposure to secondhand smoke, sign up as a supporter to learn more ways you can be involved.

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