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CHEMIST: Finds Answers to Questions

Everett, Washington

AFSCME Local 443 Vice Pres. Bruce Zeller became a chemist because, “I liked finding answers to questions.” And he has put that quality of curiosity to good use for the working people of Washington state and for the members of his own local union.

Zeller is a gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy expert at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) state plan laboratory here. “I work with unknown organics,” he said, “to help field staff identify what they need to sample for in the various industries throughout the state. In the lab here we provide answers to hygienists who are trying to find solutions to workplace illnesses.

"There is no typical sample, and that’s the hard part,” said Zeller. “If it’s expected to be organic and is expected to be causing injury to workers, I’ll get it—if it’s unknown.”

When he looks back at his almost 15 years on the job, Zeller remembers one case that sums up the importance of his job.

"In 1983, one of our hygienists took a sample in a factory that was using a water-soluble oil.” Hydraulic fluid was leaking into it. “The hygienist had me test the water-soluble oil for PCB’s,” said Zeller. The PCB’s in the sample were at a level “18 times the allowable concentration. If that had gone undetected, here were over 600 people who today would be potentially experiencing complications from PCB exposure—cancer. That type of thing is what keeps me here doing the kind of work I’m doing,” he said.

But today it’s not enough to do the professional work the state employs Zeller to do. He and his union have to fight for the right to continue the work.

"OSHA is under attack,” he said. And this attack and proposed funding cuts almost led to the lab’s work being contracted out. “The safety and health of the people in this state would have been put at risk,” said Zeller.

"I found it real interesting that our lab was rated as a non-core service. But, if there is a natural disaster, we’re the number one priority to get up and operational. Decision makers sometimes don’t connect both sides of the issue,” he said. “Without the union there wouldn’t be a connection because there’d be no voice to speak up for it.

"I’ve always been one who says that if things aren’t the way they should be, you should get in there and change them. My union involvement is focused on that—the easiest way to drive change is from within,” said Zeller.

"I think that our union has—over the past two years—become stronger because of people like myself who have been willing to stand up and say, ‘Things have to change,’ and being willing to work to make change appen.”

And Zeller is working to move this effort out of the workplace and into the community. “I believe that our true powers lie in working together,” he said. “If every union member in Washington voted together, we could make all the difference. We have to start working for our own change,” said Zeller. “We can’t wait for someone else to do it.”

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