February 28, 2016
New York, NY – Last December at the 21st Annual UN Climate Change Conference (a.k.a. Climate of the Parties or COP21), some 200 nations reached a commitment to limit global temperature increases. The agreement represented the most significant step in the fight to reduce global warming.
But participants at the Conference, from President Barack Obama to environmental leaders such as Bill McKibben—founder of 350.org—acknowledge that the proposed cuts should go further if we are to avoid catastrophic global warming.
At the COP21, 1199SEIU Secretary Treasurer Maria Castañeda addressed a panel that examined the role of healthcare workers in combating climate change.
Castañeda spoke of the Union’s long history of support for legislation, pro-environment candidates and measures to address the dangerous effects of climate change.
She also spoke about 1199ers on the frontlines of initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing energy use and waste. Hospitals that operate round the clock every day of the year are major emitters of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
The Hippocratic oath to “first do no harm,” means that healthcare institutions and workers have a responsibility to eliminate practices that harm people and the environment. Thus, healthcare institutions are exploring ways to reduce energy use and waste, and incorporate more sustainable environmental practices.
“I assist in implementing all sustainability programs throughout the hospital,” says Michael Matos, the Green Initiative Liaison at Montefiore Health System in the Bronx.
Matos works closely with Montefiore’s energy and sustainability manager, Jeffrey Hogan, in one of the nation’s most successful healthcare greening initiatives. The hospital also has introduced energy conservation measures, including more efficient lighting and machinery.
“My responsibilities include educating all hospital employees on green programs and practices, and then providing support for implementation,” Matos notes.
“A main focus of my work is to make co-workers aware of the their role,” Matos says. “Their biggest role is waste segregation. Each worker and department plays a huge role in our success.” Matos’s experience is evidence that the task of reducing emissions and increasing sustainability can’t be left to management alone. Institutions that have made significant reductions often have done so through labormanagement committees.
Manhattan’s NYU-Langone Medical Center, for example, has substantially reduced waste through recycling under the leadership of the hospital’s Building Service Department’s (BSD) Labor- Management Committee.
Like Matos, most of the 1199ers who are leading the Green efforts are graduates of Health Care Advancement Project (H-CAP) programs. H-CAP is a national labor/ management organization that promotes innovation and quality in healthcare career education. Its board consists of representatives of the Service Employees International locals and representatives of healthcare institutions across the nation.
1199SEIU’s Health And Safety program also train 1199ers to mitigate climate change through measures such as reducing waste and using safer chemicals.
The Union also works with employers and community partners to build resiliency and improve preparedness for future climate disasters. Quality coaches, Hazmat worker trainers and Union Resiliency Coordinators train coworkers to handle disasters.
Members are not only at the tables of their workplaces, but also on the frontlines of political and legislative battles demanding that our elected officials address climate dangers.
Leaders in the healthcare industry point out that hospitals can save millions of dollars by adopting more sustainable practices. These improvements, in turn, would have a positive effect on the health of the local community.
Montefiore is in the process of installing two roof gardens, which will help to reduce flooding, clean the surrounding air and provide other benefits.
“We hold a yearly Earth Day event,” Matos says. “Last year’s theme was ‘Greening Your Home and Workplace.’ We’ve also developed a community garden, which helps to educate teens in the community about urban farming. Currently the garden is being maintained by Montefiore employees.”
Individuals and nations will have to make major changes if we are to avert the worst effects of climate change, climate-justice advocates warn.
Montefiore has accepted the challenge. “We have noticed a significant increase in staff engagement,” Matos stresses. “We realize that we’re closer to reaching a goal of building a culture of sustainability.”