Posted on March 26, 2013

CelesteAward Presentation Speech, Given by Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration

“Celeste –

It is truly an honor to be here tonight presenting you with this award. I have had the great pleasure of working with you for more than ten years. I still remember our first meeting – you had risen very high in the career staff at the Labor Department,, starting at OSHA and eventually as special assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health – but you couldn’t stomach how the agencies were being run by the political appointees of the last administration and you had to get out.

Why not go back to school, you thought? That’s how I came to know you.

In these subsequent years, I have known you first as a student, then as a research assistant, TA, co-author on numerous papers, faculty colleague and now as a stakeholder and critic of OSHA, relentlessly pushing my agency, and MSHA, the White House, and Congress to do a better job protecting America’s workers.

You are the living embodiment of speaking truth to power.  With great passion, you insist that workers should not have to face hazards that could take their limbs, or their lungs, or their lives. But if that does happen, you insist that justice be served. You insist law-breaking employers pay the price.  You insist lethargic or timid agencies are taken to task. And, following workplace tragedies like sago, or upper big branch, you insist the families of victims are heard.

It is very fitting that you are receiving an award named for Dr. Irving Selikoff, because, in addition to being a brilliant physician scientist, he was a fierce advocate.  He didn’t discover that asbestos caused lung disease, or cancer, or mesothelioma, but he understood how to communicate his findings to move people and institutions.

In many ways, you are very much like Dr. Selikoff.   You are a tireless advocate, but armed with a remarkable set of skills, expertise and knowledge that make your advocacy so powerful.

You understand the law and the workings of our institutions, so you can lead a lobbying visit with family members who have never been to Capitol Hill, choreograph a meeting that reshapes the thinking of senior Administration officials, craft powerful testimony, file a fearsome FOIA request, or feed a reporter with just the right information to trigger a powerful news report.

But you are also a scientist – you can dissect an epidemiology or toxicology study, and show exactly why the paper is a mercenary attempt to exonerate a dangerous substance.   Your doctoral dissertation was an awesome example of your intellect and perseverance – you wanted to measure the impact of a change in law on mine worker safety, so you mastered complicated time series analyses that would have been a challenge to senior epidemiologists.

And not surprisingly, you are a superb teacher – your classes at GW received the highest student evaluations.

And you do it all with infectious enthusiasm, a smile on your face, amazing generosity, and great modesty. When I spoke with several people with whom you’ve worked closely, none even knew you were getting this award.  Many of you here tonight know that at some union and professional meetings, members of our community create and perform impromptu skits – we can count on Celeste to be in every skit, and, Celeste, we will never forget your Sarah Palin imitation.

You are known across the country as someone who will go the extra mile to help a friend or colleague, or a student.  When you lived in Washington, and there was a hearing on the hill, you’d  pick up people at the airport, put them up in your guest bedroom or on your sofa so they wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel. You’d host the planning sessions at your dining room table..   When you taught occupational safety and health to the undergrads at GWU, you’d lead the voluntary Saturday morning stream and river cleanups, and take the students on tours of worksites.

Now, you are facing your greatest challenge, and you are fighting cancer with the same force and determination you focused on law-breaking, worker killing employers in Libby, Montana or Sago, West Virginia.  This award is the symbolic thanks from all of us who fight for better, safer workplaces, thanks for the awesome work you have done,  thanks for the lives you have saved, and thanks for important work we know you will keep doing, long into the future.”  Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA)



Award Acceptance Speech, Written by Dr. Celeste Monforton

“I am truly honored to receive the Irving Selikoff Lifetime Achievement Award from ADAO.  I am very sorry that I am not able to be there in person to accept it. Keep up the fight to identify more effective treatments for asbestos-related diseases.  Keep strong the battle for a ban on asbestos in the U.S.  Keep seeking justice for those whose lives and communities have been harmed because of it.”