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The True Meaning of Labor Day in the US

Shamkhor Contributor: Chris Williams, CAE, Executive Director, VPPPA

To many, Labor Day marks the ceremonial end to summer and one final opportunity to gather with friends and family, fire up the barbecue and, in many parts of the country, enjoy the last vestiges of warm weather before fall and winter set in.

Sadly, very few Americans understand the reason behind the holiday.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the origins of Labor Day date back to the mid-1800s, when, as they state, “before it was a federal holiday, Labor Day was recognized by labor activists and individual states.” In 1885, the first municipal ordinance was passed to acknowledge Labor Day as a celebratory event—Oregon became the pioneer state to enact a law recognizing Labor Day on February 21, 1887. By 1894, 31 states had established laws to honor Labor Day, and on June 28, 1894, Congress officially designated the first Monday in September of each year as a legal holiday.

But why do we celebrate? In simple terms, we commemorate Labor Day to honor the invaluable contributions of the American worker to our nation’s prosperity and success. As Peter J. McGuire, the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners in 1882, eloquently put it, Labor Day is a “general holiday for the laboring classes” meant to pay tribute to those “who, from rude nature, have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

To me, Labor Day represents not only a celebration of the American worker but also a recognition of the remarkable progress we’ve achieved in safeguarding our workforce over the past century. We’ve come a long way from the old and, quite frankly, frightening mindset of “injuries and deaths are a part of industry” to where we are now—a relentless pursuit of eliminating the hazards and behaviors that can lead to unsafe work. We owe much of this progress to the Department of Labor and OSHA, as well as labor and trade organizations working together to develop the processes—and relationships—needed to recognize that workplace safety is a shared responsibility (and core value).

Programs like OSHA’s VPP, along with organizations like VPPPA, have facilitated these relationships and brought labor, management, and the regulatory components together to focus on advancing health and safety excellence in the workplace. Together, as a united front, we’ve embraced that responsibility and—more importantly—helped bring others into our programs as part of our mission to protect every worker, on every jobsite.

But the biggest contributor to our EHS&S (Environment, Health, Safety, and Sustainability) evolution over the last 100 years has been, and will continue to be, the front-line worker. These individuals, present daily on production floors, construction sites, retail warehouses, and stores, possess a depth of experience and understanding that surpasses our own. They understand, better than anyone else, the vital importance of working safely, of speaking up to protect others from potential hazards, and of championing workplace safety.

They are the ones who directly benefit from our commitment to continuous improvement toward safety excellence, and they are also the ones who suffer the consequences when we aren’t. They’re the ones who, as we see with our VPPPA members and, especially on VPP sites around the country, drive safety innovation based on real-world experiences.

So, as we come together, whether at the pool, around the grill, or on the beach, on this first Monday of September, surrounded by those dearest to us as we bid a fond farewell to summer, remember why we’re together—because each of us contributed to making this day what it is: A day to celebrate the contributions and continued health and wellbeing of the American worker. And to that, we say thank you.

Jacqueline "Jackie" Annis is an industrial hygienist with the Office of Partnerships and Recognition, Directorate of Cooperative and State Programs in OSHA’s National Office.  Jackie’s primary responsibilities include developing and overseeing internal policies and procedures for the VPP, reviewing VPP on-site evaluation reports for process safety management information, serving as the National Office liaison for two of OSHA’s ten Regions, and facilitating the management of OSHA’s National Strategic Partnership Program.  She is an integral part of OSHA’s National Office team. 

She has served with the Agency for 36 years, including five years as a senior industrial hygienist in OSHA’s Office of Health Enforcement, Directorate of Enforcement Programs in the National Office and 17 years as a compliance safety and health officer in the Denver, CO Area Office.  Prior to her tenure at OSHA, Jackie worked as an industrial hygienist for the Department of the Navy in Alameda, California.  Jackie obtained a Bachelor of Science degree from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA in 1983.

Wayne Howard earned a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from UC Davis and has spent 12 years with Shell (at Martinez) refinery, 3 years with the consulting firm Process Safety, 15 years with Valero (at Benicia), and the last 10 years in the Corporate Process Safety Department. He is the Valero representative to AFPM's Advancing Process Safety Initiative.

Nathan Obaugh, PE is a senior engineer in the Safety and Operational Excellence Group at NuStar Energy. Nathan has over 10 years of PSM and process design experience in the petrochemical, refining and midstream industries. At NuStar, Nathan oversees all elements of the corporate PSM program and works directly on hazard analysis, process safety studies, PSM/RMP audits and provides process engineering support to the operations and capital projects groups.

Jared Teter, PhD is a senior staff scientist with a background in physics and hazards analysis. He has extensive experience in subscale testing of energetic materials and has served as program manager for several large testing and risk management projects. He has applied engineering and risk management protocols while evaluating the risk associated with propellant and explosives manufacturing, combustible dust, and other hazardous material related processes.

Tim Belitz has a degree in Environmental Health/Industrial Hygiene from Old Dominion University and a Master’s from Duke University. He has over 25 years of Industrial Health Safety and Environmental Experience and is a Certified Safety Professional. He has many years focused on Contractor Management and Process Safety programs.

Rob Walker graduated from Virginia Tech in Microbiology and Chemical Engineering. Rob has almost 35 years of experience working in the chemical plant and refining industry. His passion for Process Safety and Mechanical Integrity began very early in his career. Rob began with his current company, Honeywell, back in 2011.

Prasad Joshi has B.S. and M.S. Degrees in Chemical Engineering from two universities in India. Prasad has over 30 years’ experience in the business. He began with Honeywell in May 2022 as Principal Maintenance Engineer. He has worked internationally in Asia and Europe.