I was in New Orleans this past June looking for passion, but not the kind that may be found on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter.

I was at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference & Exposition looking for industrial hygienists and others who still had passion for what they do. Surveys show that IHs are losing zeal for their work faster than any other environmental health and safety discipline, and they are singing the blues about their future.

Ironically, singing the blues has profoundly impacted EHS in the U.S. And this issue has more of an impact on you than you may think.

Birth of blues

Singing the blues about one's job in New Orleans is not new. Black slaves known as "field callers" sang about their suffering and dangerous work as they cleared canals and worked in fields around New Orleans long ago. The style of singing and music was coined as the "blues" in 1862. Historical records show that whites experienced compassion for the plight of slaves after hearing blues songs.

The end of the Civil War slowly improved working conditions for African-Americans. But with illiteracy still high among blacks, singing the blues remained a prominent means to record and exchange experiences of dangerous and hard labor.

Working conditions worsened for blacks with the start of the Great Depression in 1929. They suffered an unemployment rate three times that of whites, and available jobs often had deplorable safety and health conditions. The greatest, but least reported, occupational health disaster in the U.S. occurred during 1930 to 1933 when more than 800 workers, mostly black migrants from the south, died from carbon monoxide poisoning - and to a greater extent from acute silicosis - while digging a tunnel at Hawk's Nest, West Virginia.

"Silicosis is killin' me"

The Hawk's Nest disaster was the theme of the blues song, "Silicosis is killin' me" by Pinewood Tom (Josh White). Josh's songs were passionate and many were first-hand accounts. When Josh was six years old he saw his father brutally beaten and put in jail by tax collectors. His father never recovered from the beating. Josh left home at the age of eight to find work and help support his family. After several years of a hobo life and hard part-time work, Josh learned to make a living playing the blues.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was intrigued by Josh White's blues music. Roosevelt met with Josh and they became good friends. Josh performed at Roosevelt's inauguration, and he was the first African-American to perform at the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt especially liked Josh and she became the godmother to Josh Jr.

Josh's description of the hard life suffered by blacks had a strong influence on Roosevelt. Josh's silica blues peaked Roosevelt's concern about Hawk's Nest, and at Roosevelt's urging a congressional hearing convened on the incident in 1935.

One week following the congressional hearing, a group of industrialists met to establish a response to the problem of "dusty trades." The meeting led to the formation of the Air Hygiene Foundation in 1936. A goal of the foundation was to set up "authoritative and approved standards for the control of industrial dusts which, if complied with by industries or, by industrial companies, will act as a defense against personal injury suits." The formation of the Air Hygiene Foundation led to the establishment of the American Industrial Hygiene Association, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, and a forerunner to modern-day Threshold Limit Values about two years later.

Passing the Walsh-Healy Act

Josh's influence on Roosevelt did not end with Hawk's Nest. Roosevelt used his presidential position to help pass the Walsh-Healy Act in 1936 that required companies supplying goods to the government to maintain safe and healthful working conditions. This act was the first major law regarding the safety and health for a class of workers in the U.S. And Roosevelt's cabinet selection and many New Deal programs helped improve the civil rights and working lives of African-Americans and other people.

One hundred years after the birth of the blues, our nation again was embroiled in bitter disputes about war and civil rights. After a few years of decline during the 1950s, the blues became a popular form of music among the activist college crowd in the 1960s and Josh was a popular attraction. Josh White died in 1969.

The blues influence on the consciousness of Americans in the 1960s is not clear. But what is clear is that the decade of the 1960s set the stage for the landmark EHS laws we deal with today. The Metal and Nonmetallic Mine Safety Act was passed in 1966; the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act was passed in 1969; and OSHA and EPA legislation were hotly debated in 1969 and both were established as law in 1970.

Scant separation

So how does this brief history of the blues impact you? We live in a six-degrees-of-separation world. The six-degree separation theory holds that upon a keen evaluation, all people and events are closely related. The way that blues music impacted EHS history is one example. And there is considerably more to this story if I choose to tell it.

The blues show that individual passion about experiences or ideas, together with compassion by others to support this cause, can change the world. Passion is a powerful catalyst for change.

Power of passion

Have you lost passion in what you do? If so, how can others become compassionate about things you believe in? Methodically going about doing your job without zeal or enthusiasm will get the work done, but will what you do inspire others to do more?

How do you regain passion for your career if it's lost? No one can show you how. It must come from within, and you must believe that what you do is important. Remember Josh White and six degrees of separation. Your work, too, might seem obscure and distant from global events and important decision-makers. But gradually over time, and in ways we can scarcely predict, your contributions could one day change the world. It all begins with passion and conviction.