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Volume 33, Number 2
Winter 1996

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A Critical Examination of Safety Texts:
Implications for Trade and Industrial Education

James A. Gregson
Oklahoma State University

Safety instruction and laboratory organization are frequently incorporated into the certification requirements for trade and industrial education instructors (e.g., Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia). The emphasis on safety and organization is easily understood. Many trade and industrial education laboratories are potentially dangerous places because of their attempt to simulate occupational environments. Machinery, power tools, toxic chemicals, and fumes are just a few examples of what vocational students and teachers encounter on a frequent basis in school. As a result, trade and industrial educators must be concerned not only for the safety and health of their students, but also for their own protection against liability (Gathercoal & Stern, 1987; Storm, 1993).

Because of certification requirements and the need to promote health and safety, texts have been developed to help raise safety consciousness and prevent accidents in trade and industrial education laboratories as well as in places of work. However, Simon, Dippo, and Schenke (1991) have argued that such texts have placed an almost "singular emphasis on providing information about safe work practices and safety equipment as well as worker protection within existing legislation" (p. 95). Their position is that while this information is important, such a defensive approach is not sufficient to solve health and safety problems in the workplace.

Simon et al. (1991), along with several other contemporary scholars (Bettis & Gregson, 1993; Gregson, 1993, 1994a, 1994b; Kincheloe, 1995; Lakes, 1991, 1994; Rehm, 1989; Shor, 1988), have advocated the practice of critical pedagogy in vocational education programs. Critical pedagogy in this context is concerned with, but not limited to, a thoughtful inquiry into the complex conditions of the workplace and to the promotion of more humane work. The practice of critical pedagogy does not exclude the use of textbooks, safety rules, demonstrations, video cassettes, posters, and fact sheets; however, it does dictate a critical analysis through such approaches as workplace investigations and problems so that students can gain insights into the challenges of safe and healthy work lives. Teachers who practice critical pedagogy critique and revise texts as well as search for curricular materials that stimulate the exploration of possibilities to avoid restricting human capacities.

Krimerman, in an interview with Lakes (1994), provided examples of critical practices. Specifically, he described numerous projects where students investigated workplace environments and participated in activities that promoted safety and health. In some instances, students in these projects participated in democracy-building activities with community members and solved real industrial and environmental problems. Critical pedagogues support transformative learning/teaching experiences because they contend that, in general, there is little concern or attention given to the work conditions of lower-status workers. As a result, they have advocated instructional activities and curricular materials that address power relations, information control, and democratic participation (Gregson, 1993; Kincheloe, 1995).

Theoretical/Conceptual Base and Its Implementation

The purpose of this qualitative research effort was framed in the context of critical theoretical concerns (Kincheloe & McLaren, 1994). Specifically, this study critically examined whether certain health and safety texts helped to produce the type of knowledge needed to maintain hegemonic workplaces and practices.

This study fits within the critical social research paradigm for several reasons. First, there is an acknowledgment that the researcher's beliefs and values played a significant role in the conceptualization, implementation, and analysis of the research (Lakes & Bettis, in press). Second, there is the contention that knowledge is socially constructed and hence there is no valid, reliable, or objective view of realit (Kincheloe & McLaren, 1994; Simon & Dippo, 1986). Finally, this study represented an effort to challenge oppressive social and economic practices (Lakes & Bettis, in press).

Simon et al. (1991) identified four themes that contribute to a critical inquiry into the topic of occupational health and safety: (a) the definition of a health and safety problem, (b) the allocation of responsibility for solving the problem, (c) the social context of work, and (d) collective responsibility for health and safety. Within these themes, industry and labor often have very different perspectives about responsibility for workplace hazards (Chenoweth, 1987; Kazis & Grossman, 1982). For example, Nelkin and Brown (1984) not only maintain that the industrial perspective has historically dominated the occupational health and safety literature, they also contend that this literature has often been accepted as fact rather than as examples. Though Nelkin and Brown recognize that a labor or worker perspective has begun to contribute to a discourse on occupational health and safety, they still contend that the responsibilities for health and safety problems are assigned primarily to workers. More recent research has supported this perspective. Aronowitz and DiFazio (1994) and Mishel and Bernstein (1994) suggest that while some post-industrial workplaces have improved safety and health through empowering workers to solve problems and make decisions, many still expose workers to safety and health hazards on a frequent basis. As a result, critical theorists (Gregson, 1994a; Kincheloe, 1995; Lakes, 1994) believe it is imperative to expose vocational students to learning activities and curricular materials that provide them with insights into how workers gain power, gather information, and participate in democratic activities.

Research Methods and Procedures

Qualitative content analysis was used to "mine" data from selected texts concerned with raising occupational safety consciousness of vocational educators and tomorrow's workers. Specifically, three texts were examined that are currently being used by vocational teacher educators to help trade and industrial teachers become knowledgeable about safety and health. The selected texts were Managing the Occupational Education Laboratory (Storm, 1993), Teacher Liability in School-Shop Accidents (Kigin, 1983), and Safety and Health for Industrial/Vocational Education: For Supervisors and Instructors (Firenze & Walters, 1981). These texts were selected because (a) congruence existed between the documents and the research problem; (b) they represented some of the few texts available to the trade and industrial education profession concerned with health and safety instruction; (c) their focus, while related, varied so that multiple issues surrounding safety and health could be more fully addressed (e.g., organization and management, liability); and (d) while a systematic attempt to determine the extent to which these texts are actually used in the field was not part of this study, these texts are in use. Specifically, 12 trade and industrial (T&I) teacher educators were contacted either by telephone, electronic mail, or in person at the 1993 meeting of the National Association of Industrial and Technical Teacher Educators and asked which textbooks they used to teach their safety courses. While nine of the 12 teacher educators confirmed that they used one or more of the texts critiqued in this study, each individual expressed the concern that the available safety, organization, and management texts were outdated and incomplete. Hence, they felt compelled to supplement the texts with additional materials.

The procedure used to study the selected health and safety texts was unobtrusive in that texts are "objective" sources of data, and the investigator did not alter what was studied by his presence (Hodder, 1994; Merriam, 1988; Webb, Campbell, Schwartz, & Sechrest, 1966). The four themes identified by Simon et al. (1991) were used as categories to help collect, code, analyze, and interpret the data. To collect the data, the three texts were read in their entirety. The following abbreviated labels representing each of the four themes were then used to code segments of the texts: (a) defining the problem, (b) allocating responsibility, (c) social context, and (d) collective responsibility. Files were then developed from the coded segments of the texts. While it was recognized that unexpected categories, themes, and concepts can emerge during coding, the four themes developed by Simon et al. (1991) were sufficient. As will become evident in the discussion of the findings, this study confirmed Lofland and Lofland's (1994) position that some files become well developed while others never get fully developed due to a lack of data. Finally, to interpret the data, an emphasis was placed on uncovering meaning and discovering insights relevant to informing vocational educators and future workers about health and safety issues. Nevertheless, quantification was also one component of the interpretation process.

Discussion of Findings

Defining Health and Safety Problems

Of the three texts examined, only Safety and Health for Industrial/Vocational Education: For Supervisors and Instructors (Firenze & Walters, 1981) explicitly recognized the complexity of defining health problems:

But, because health hazards and their destructive impact often are not fully understood, many health hazards exist within industrial/vocational shops without arousing the concern they deserve. (p. 13-3)

Managing the Occupational Education Laboratory (Storm, 1993) and Teacher Liability in School-Shop Accidents (Kigin, 1983) focused more on safety and the prevention of traumatic injuries. All three texts defined safety problems and provided evidence that accidents resulting from a lack of safety can be potentially catastrophic; however, none of the texts described how the nature of work is changing and how it has become increasingly difficult to make definitive causal connections between illness and work (Goetsch, 1993; Thompson, 1983; Zuboff, 1988).

The texts also failed to include discussion regarding the lack of research on certain substances (e.g., chemicals) to identify problems resulting from specific levels of exposure (Nelkin & Brown, 1984; Sheridan, 1991; Smith & Olishifiski, 1988). Admittedly, numerous variables that are difficult to control make empirical research in this area problematic (e.g., individual variation, synergistic effects of multiple exposures, differences in life styles). The texts were void of any discussion of how health problems resulting from workplace hazards frequently escape detection, can easily be misdiagnosed by a physician, are gradual (i.e., months and years), and do not affect everyone (American Institute of Chemical Engineers, 1985). Firenze and Walters (1981) discussed the value of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for being helpful in defining health problems. They provide a Material Safety Data Sheet to assist in the identification of occupational hazardous materials (Firenze & Walters, 1981, p. 13-87). The other two texts, Managing the Occupational Education Laboratory (Storm, 1993) and Teacher Liability in School-Shop Accidents (Kigin, 1983), did not discuss Material Safety Data Sheets. This is surprising for two reasons. First, many trade and industrial students and teachers come into contact with toxic substances on almost a daily basis within their respective learning environments (Gathercoal & Stern, 1987). Second, "Worker's Right-to-Know" laws mandate that information concerning exposure to hazardous substances be provided to students and workers (Spencer & Simonowitz, 1986). Consequently, to meet their legal obligations, trade and industrial educators need to teach students how to use an MSDS effectively by helping them learn what constitutes a potential hazard, how to monitor exposure, what is acceptable exposure, how to properly handle hazardous materials, and what emergency techniques to use when an accident occurs. Though Firenze and Walters (1981) discussed MSDS, they failed to critically examine the value of them. For example, a frequent criticism of Material Safety Data Sheets is that they often use inaccessible language and vary in format to the extent that students and workers sometimes have difficulty understanding them (National Safety Council, 1988). Different companies and industries produce MSDS, so it is understandable that there is considerable variance among them. Nevertheless, industry's reaction to this criticism does suggest that industry and labor may have very different perspectives about responsibility for exposure to toxic substances in the workplace (Simon et al., 1991).

The three texts also failed to recognize that there are often contrasting messages about materials and conditions impacting the health and safety of workers. The authors of these texts seemed to represent the industrial perspective because they continually emphasized individual responsibility. The texts lacked the perspective espoused by public interest research groups and labor unions, which places considerable emphasis on government and corporate responsibility. Consequently, the authors of these texts made numerous assumptions and never questioned how their limited perspective could impact their analyses and recommendations for improving health and safety.

Storm (1993) and Kigin (1983) seemed to embrace the industrial perspective and limited their analyses and recommendations to improving safety through the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). For example, Kigin (1983) stated, "A comprehensive safety program is dependent on … good personal protective equipment … and good enforcement" (p. 105). While Storm and Kigin correctly stated that there are numerous instances in which workers and students need to wear personal protective equipment, only Firenze and Walters (1981) recognized contexts in which environments can be designed to eliminate or minimize the use of PPE. They contended that

The first and perhaps best control alternative is to attack a hazard at its source … The second alternative should be to control the path of the hazard by erecting a barricade between the hazard and the students … The third alternative should be to direct control efforts at the receivers, the students. (Firenze & Walters, 1981, pp. 3-11, 3-12)

For example, machinery and tools can frequently be insulated or muffled to reduce decibels so that the noise is controlled at its source or along its path rather than at the point of hearing. It is the position of the National Safety Council that engineering controls are more effective than PPE when it is possible to implement them, and future workers need to be aware of such engineering possibilities (LaBar, 1989).

Allocating Responsibility for Solving Health and Safety Problems

Nelkin and Brown (1984) stated that "placing the blame for health and safety problems is important because culpability serves to guide industrial practices and public policy, and to define responsibility for compensatory and remedial measures" (p. 50). None of the three texts addressed the issue of assigning responsibility for health and safety problems. On the contrary, Storm (1993) and Kigin (1983) consistently emphasized personal solutions (e.g., using personal protective equipment) while Firenze and Walters (1981) recognized technical solutions (e.g., redesign of equipment or processes). However, none of the authors discussed how administrative solutions (e.g., increased dialogue between labor and management) can solve health and safety problems found in the workplace.

The authors of the reviewed texts may not have addressed the issue of assigning responsibility for health and safety problems because they believed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) effectively insures that employees would have safe and healthy working conditions. Interestingly, Safety and Health for Industrial/Vocational Education: For Supervisors and Instructors (Firenze & Walters, 1981) did not explain the purpose and role of OSHA, even though both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reviewed and helped publish the text. In contrast, Storm (1993) explained, in Managing the Occupational Education Laboratory, that "the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor issues the safety and health standards for all employers and employees … and enforces compliance with the Act" (p. 98). As described by Kigin (1983) in Teacher Liability in School-Shop Accidents, the purpose and role of OSHA is to insure safe and healthful working conditions for "every working man and woman in the nation " (p. 73).

Neither Storm nor Kigin made reference to the common criticisms leveled against OSHA. Detractors of OSHA have ranged from those who have described it as an overbearing bureaucracy with little or no sensitivity to the needs of employers trying to survive in a competitive market place, to those who have described it as a timid organization that favors big business and is not concerned with the health and welfare of the working person. While, at different times and in different cases, both perspectives have probably been at least partially true (Goetsch, 1993), these texts provided no information for vocational teachers to share with their students about the services available from and the limitations of OSHA.

Critical theorists should find this omission problematic. They would point to evidence that suggests that (a) OSHA fines have posed little hardship on industry, (b) there has been a lack of judicial commitment to prosecute companies that blatantly violate OSHA standards, and (c) while laws provide for prison sentences, no one has ever gone to jail for violating safety standards (Goetsch, 1993). Firenze and Walters (1981) did discuss, in Safety and Health for Industrial/Vocational Education: For Supervisors and Instructors, students', workers', and vocational educators' respective responsibilities regarding health and safety. However, similar to the authors of the other two texts, they failed to discuss the employees' rights or the employers' responsibilities. Critical theorists would contend that such selected information provides evidence that trade and industrial education makes the interests of students subservient to the interests of employers (Gregson, 1994a; Simon et al., 1991).

Perhaps the authors of the reviewed texts chose not to address the issue of assigning responsibility for health and safety problems because they did not want to "sow the seeds of disorder in relations between employers and employees" (Simon et al., 1991, p. 9). Evidence suggests that industry has become increasingly concerned with the number of court decisions against workplaces for worker injuries and illnesses attributed to exposures to safety and health hazards (Colling, 1990). Consequently, potential employers may not favor raising future workers' consciousness of occupational health and safety. Just as different perspectives exist on OSHA's performance, there are also contrasting perspectives on contemporary concerns with health and safety hazards. One perspective is that contemporary society has become obsessed with health and safety hazards and that the number of whiners, opportunists, and hypochondriacs has increased in the workplace (Viscusi, 1983). Another perspective is that there are such structural inequalities in the workplace that employers effectively exploit workers through required exertion and exposure to health and safety hazards (Carnoy & Levin, 1985; Tausky, 1978; Zuboff, 1988). Although evidence supports both perspectives, the texts did not provide information for vocational teachers to share with their students to promote reflection on health and safety hazards in the workplace.

While none of the texts addressed the issue of assigning responsibility for health and safety problems in the workplace, all three texts recognized that vocational educators have a moral and legal responsibility to help students learn technical skills correctly and safely:

A fundamental law governing the association of the teacher and pupils requires the avoidance of negligent conduct which might produce harm and injury to the student. (Kigin, 1983, p. 2)

Students who are just learning to use equipment which is potentially dangerous present special problems. The responsibility for the physical welfare of the students rests with the instructor. (Storm, 1993, p. 99)

Developing an effective program to reduce accidents and adverse health conditions requires the efforts of many people directly and indirectly with instructional activities. Perhaps the key person … is the instructor. (Firenze & Walters, 1981, p. 1-4)

The texts consistently advocated the incorporation of safety instruction into every laboratory demonstration and into most technical information lessons. The stated rationale for this emphasis was that (a) students who are learning to use potentially dangerous equipment and materials present special problems, (b) the responsibility for the physical welfare of the students rests with the instructor, and (c) occupational education cannot separate safety education from skill preparation.

The three texts addressed laboratory safety in a rather comprehensive manner; they discussed the need to consider (a) the laboratory environment (e.g., guarding of machinery and equipment, ventilation systems), (b) education (e.g., lessons, demonstrations, modeling, posters, videos), and (c) enforcement (e.g., effective use of safety tests, rules). The authors of these texts also recognized that the number of court actions resulting from school-related pupil injuries has increased in recent years and that to lessen the likelihood of becoming involved in litigation, trade and industrial instructors must incorporate a comprehensive safety system. While the safety program advocated in the texts would probably reduce laboratory accidents, the implicit message to students seemed to be that they must contend with workplace risks if they want to stay employed.

The Social Context of Work: Implications for Health and Safety

The three texts were almost exclusively concerned with the health and safety of students in vocational education programs and made little reference to the health and safety of employees in the workplace. When they did refer to workplace accidents, the authors suggested that carelessness and lack of knowledge among workers were the primary causes:

a great many accidents are the result of someone doing something which he is not supposed to do, knowing very well that he is not supposed to do it. (Firenze & Walters, 1981, p. 1-6)

we stand in awe of the progress that has been made in industry to render the manufacturing process safe for the workers … Perhaps one of the more discouraging aspects of accident prevention in the school shop is the failure of individuals to take the necessary precautions. (Kigin, 1983, p. 93)

The texts avoided any discussion of why supervisors sometimes ignore health and safety violations and the texts also failed to mention how forms of wage-labor exchange might contribute to safety violations (Simon et al., 1991; Viscusi, 1983). For example, there is evidence that more accidents occur when work is done "by the foot" or "piece" rather than by the hour because of intensified pressure on workers to produce. When workers are paid "piecework" they are more likely to remove guards or not wear personal protection equipment because such devices tend to hinder production. Further, when supervisors are charged with "getting production out," it is easy to understand why they are willing to tolerate safety infractions (Fraser, 1989; Grandjean, 1988; Konz, 1990).

All three texts neglected to discuss how workplace designs can impact health and safety. Tausky (1978) and Wirth (1983) provided examples of how designs based on industrial democracy increase communication, promote work satisfaction, enrich work, and reduce health and safety problems. These examples were primarily from Western Europe because United States' industry has been slow to change its hierarchical, control oriented factories into more participatory organizations. Though there is evidence that suggests the movement towards high performance workplaces has impacted the nature of work in U.S. organizations, many workers still have little input on the tasks they perform, the techniques they employ, the tools and equipment they use, and the production process itself (Fraser, 1989; Wirth, 1983, 1992). As a result, those who have an intricate knowledge of the workforce are prevented from making it more productive, safe, and healthy (McDermott, 1990; Payne, 1988). Trade and industrial students and teachers need to be aware of such relationships so they can make more informed decisions on which industries are desirable for partnerships and eventual employment.

In addition to issues of hierarchy and power, work cultures also contribute to high risk practices (McDermott, 1990; Peters, 1987; Viscusi, 1983). For example, some work cultures may promote a machismo that "valorizes risk-taking and denigrates health and safety concerns" (Simon et al., 1991, p. 107). Young male workers may be particularly prone to cultures that support risk-taking because of their need to demonstrate their own bravado. Occupational areas such as the construction industry frequently possess such sub-cultures because of the need for workers to have strength, speed, and a willingness to work at great heights. If trade and industrial educators are to promote health and safety practices for future workers in the workplace as well as in the laboratory, it is incumbent on them to compel students to consider the relevance of this issue in their own environments.

Health and Safety: A Collective Responsibility

All three texts implied that it was generally the individual worker who was at fault in most accidents rather than equipment or management. Although not addressed by the authors of these texts, historically it has been and still is necessary for workers to act jointly to protect themselves and to improve the quality of their own working environment (Nelkin & Brown, 1984; Simon et al., 1991; Sinclair, 1906/1988). The texts did not provide information on what conditions need to exist in order to generate and support successful collective action to make workplaces more healthy and safe. Trade and industrial students need to be aware of the importance of generating a broad base of support among as many workers as possible before approaching management with a complaint or recommendation for improving a working condition (Herschbach, 1994). Further, students need to become familiar with resources from organizations that can provide support for the needed improvements. Finally, students should be aware that there are standards and procedures that most workplaces must adhere to and that inspectors from organizations such as OSHA can investigate to determine the extent to which safety and health hazards are present.

Conclusion and Implications

The texts that were reviewed in this study provided information that, if implemented into practice, could free trade and industrial instructors from responsibility for negligence and the resultant liability. This is not an insignificant contribution when one recognizes that trade and industrial education teachers are now more likely to be involved in legal action if one of their students suffers an injury than at any other time in educational history (Gathercoal & Stern, 1987). Nevertheless, as Simon et al. (1991) implied, the texts failed to recognize the complexity and interconnectedness of the social, political, and economic contexts within which work transpires. All three texts failed to acknowledge that there is actually a discourse on what constitutes a health and safety problem. The texts consistently emphasized personal solutions and, with but one exception, did not include technical or administrative solutions for health and safety problems found in the workplace. These authors placed the emphasis on personal solutions, thereby failing to recognize that historically it has been (and still is) necessary for workers to act jointly with employers to protect themselves and to improve the quality of their own working environment (Herschbach, 1994; Nelkin & Brown, 1984; Simon et al., 1991).

Educational Implications

The authors of the texts examined in this study were similar in that they contended that specific occupational skills, behaviors, values, and attitudes are needed by workers to create and maintain safe and healthy work environments. Alternative approaches, free from the preponderant influence of the industrial perspective (i.e., counter-hegemonic), are needed to help transform schools and places of work into more democratic organizations where discourses on conditions that characterize workplaces include perspectives from labor, environmental groups, and community organizations. Texts that include such perspectives are needed to inform those involved in trade and industrial education of the social and political structures of specific work. If trade and industrial education is to contribute to participatory and democratic practices in schools and in workplaces as well as contribute to industrial practices, then health and safety texts must recognize that workplaces are not neutral and that a discourse on the social, political, and economic contexts within which work transpires is needed. Because the reviewed texts were void of critical content and did not present any information in a critical manner, the texts contributed to the transmission of existing work culture rather than to its transformation. Specifically, the texts failed to recognize the conflict that is inherent in making places of work more healthy and safe.

Health and safety texts for vocational educators have the potential to raise the consciousness of future workers on safety, health, and industrial values. To accomplish this, texts concerned with occupational safety and health need to reveal unjust contradictions, question taken-for-granted assumptions about how work is done, and explore possible alternatives so that work can become more democratic, humane, and safe. These texts emphasized the functioning of existing industrial workplaces rather than transforming them. This is unfortunate because there is evidence that organizations that have moved away from hierarchical, oppressive workplaces to more participatory, democratic environments have become more productive, profitable, as well as safe (McDermott, 1990; Payne, 1988; Peters, 1987; Wirth, 1983).

Vocational educators committed to improving the quality of life for future workers need to help their students become change agents so that they can improve places of work. To accomplish this, trade and industrial teachers need to be certain that a critical perspective is included in their students' curriculum (see Simon et al., 1991). The critical or reconstructionist perspective in vocational education is essential if students are to develop an understanding of work and of practices that impact their everyday lives (Bettis & Gregson, 1993; Gregson, 1994b; Lakes, 1994; Shor, 1988; Simon, 1983; Simon & Dippo, 1987).

Simon et al. (1991) provided numerous examples of how to include a critical perspective and how to contextualize safety and health curriculum by posing real problems. They suggested learning experiences such as having students conduct an audit of their laboratory or workplace, interview workers to get their opinion on health and safety issues, and compare the environments of different types of workplaces (e.g., factories to offices, construction sites to food service industries, large to small organizations, unionized to non-union workplaces). They also suggested posing problems to students such as:

A beginning worker at an automotive repair shop is told to "bag up" worn-out brake shoes. The worker thinks the shoes contain asbestos and that dust might be harmful, although other workers bag shoes without masks. (Simon et al., 1991, p. 109)

In this instance posing problems is an effective strategy to promote problem solving and decision making as well as to raise student consciousness concerning the possibility that it may be necessary for them to refuse to do a specific task in their working lives. The texts reviewed in this study not only omitted information on the appropriate sequence for a work refusal, they also failed to recognize that this might be appropriate behavior in a given situation. When the texts used by vocational educators lack a critical perspective, it increases the likelihood that the practices of vocational educators will also lack a critical perspective. It is only when vocational educators and their texts incorporate a critical perspective that there will be evidence that the field of trade and industrial education values the quality of student and worker life as much as the field values corporate interests.


Gregson is Assistant Professor, Trade and Industrial Education, College of Education, Oklahoma State University.


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Reference Citation: Gregson, J. A. (1996). A critical examination of safety texts: Implications for trade and industrial education. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 33(2), 29-46.

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