On June 17, 2003, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted an historic principle of public health that should be an example for every municipality and for the nation itself. The term they used is “precautionary principle,” and it calls for a more proactive approach to the public’s health and well-being.

By enacting this directive, the city of San Francisco stated clearly that, “Every San Francisco resident has an equal right to a healthy and safe environment. Standards involving air, water, earth and food must be strong enough that everyone lives in a safe and healthful status.”

This will not be a “performance rule.” Rules establishing performance standards are promoted by corporations and are designed to wait for something to happen before government is allowed to seek corrective measures that are often too late. This has allowed Corporate America to force the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency to adopt this kind of disastrous “wait and see” rule.

Now, at least in the Bay Area, “risk management” ideologues must take a back seat to officials who demand that the least dangerous method of disposing of the problem be used. Another provision of the ordinance is that the best available science be used to determine remediation and prevention. Costs are not to be considered when different methods of correction are being reviewed.

The practical steps that government officials must take include the following:

• Seek proactive remedies. Arguments by those opposing prevention measures by saying that there is “nothing wrong, let’s wait until a problem surfaces” must be set aside when a problem is deemed a possible hazard. The ordinance calls on government, business, community groups, labor unions and the general public to bring to the attention of city officials potential hazards well before they cause injury, illness or epidemics.

• Consider all options. In addition to the traditional “right to know” aspect of existing laws, and full transparency of all meetings, there is now a clear obligation on the part of the city of San Francisco to consider all remediation possibilities, and to choose the method that has the least damaging impact on human health, including the possibility of not taking any action.

• Assess the human impact. The ordinance also requires that all costs be considered when looking at alternative, including all health costs of not taking immediate action, not just the cost to polluters. This is a crucial issue since the costs to human health are often not considered.

A recent alert has come from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in regard to the health and safety of Latino workers. In this alert, NIOSH cites the increase of injury and occupational illness by more than one-third of the Latino worker population. The concentration of these workers is in three high-hazard industries: agriculture, construction and food processing. Mortality of Latino workers increased by 9 percent in 2001.

By “connecting the dots” between the San Francisco ordinance on preventive health and the federal warning of high risk dangers facing Latino workers, it would be incumbent upon these officials to conduct an immediate survey to determine the actions they could initiate to deal with this crisis.

Granted, this would mean the city of San Francisco would have to demand that California’s occupational health and environmental agencies initiate this process. Nonetheless, the initiative could serve as a spark plug to get the occupational and environmental movement back into high gear.

The Bush administration is highly vulnerable in the areas of occupational and environmental health. All national organizations, especially labor unions and environmental health groups, should seek congressional action for OSHA and EPA to conduct their activities to prevent hazards, thus returning these people’s agencies to their original purpose. Worker and community health and safety must be a front-burner issue in the 2004 elections.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org