Pain and Prejudice

Pain and Prejudice

What Science Can Learn about Work from the People Who Do It

By Karen Messing


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  • Science in Society Book Award, 2014 (Short-listed)

In 1978, when workers at a nearby phosphate refinery learned that the ore they processed was contaminated with radioactive dust, Karen Messing, then a new professor of molecular genetics, was called in to help. Unsure of what to do with her discovery that exposure to the radiation was harming the workers and their families, Messing contacted senior colleagues but they wouldn’t help. Neither the refinery company nor the scientific community was interested in the scary results of her chromosome studies.

Over the next decades Messing encountered many more cases of workers around the world—factory workers, cleaners, checkout clerks, bank tellers, food servers, nurses, teachers—suffering and in pain without any help from the very scientists and occupational health experts whose work was supposed to make their lives easier. Arguing that rules for scientific practice can make it hard to see what really makes workers sick, in Pain and Prejudice Messing tells the story of how she went from looking at test tubes to listening to workers.

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Pain and Prejudice: What Science Can Learn about Work from the People Who Do It, is a must read on this theme of the obstacles to science being effective in addressing workplace issues.

– Linda Silka, New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy

This is an eloquent and sobering book.

– Literary Review of Canada

I loved this book. It’s about science and how it interacts with policy and practice in the workplace. It’s about what community-based research contributes to the science of worker health protection. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in occupational health and safety, science and academia, and the protection of workers.

– Our Times Magazine

Karen Messing demonstrates a profound empathy for “invisible” people, the legion of workers performing jobs of which most of us are unaware or ignore. Pain and Prejudice is an important book that informs us how uninformed or thoughtless we are to problems of stress and pollution which can be relieved by taking them seriously and listening to the workers themselves.

– David Suzuki, author of The Sacred Balance

How can scientists be objective and empathetic at the same time? Karen Messing’s decades of research into workers’ health, especially the health of women workers and those of the lower rungs of the working class, are examined and analyzed in a very interesting and readable style. Dr. Messing shows how collaboration with community partners such as unions can improve research but how this type of research is increasingly threatened. She shows how research can and should make change in the workplace to improve workers’ health.

– Cathy Walker, past director, National Health and Safety, Canadian Auto Workers

Messing has long been one of the leading practitioners of ‘listening to workers’ stories’ as a way of understanding their health. Pain and Prejudice describes how this approach evolved, why it is so effective, and some of the leading findings. It provides a unique window into the world of worker health and safety.

– Wayne Lewchuk, professor, School of Labour Studies and Department of Economics, McMaster University

A scientific treatise, a page-turner, an exposé. It’s hard to exaggerate the attractions of this extraordinary book. It makes the personal political and the political personal, drawing the reader along in the careful and scientific exploration of the sexism, biases, and silences of science. Pain and Prejudice should be required reading for all scientists.

– Pat Armstrong, Distinguished Research Professor, Department of Sociology, York University and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada

Karen Messing is one of the intellectual trailblazers in occupational health. She and her colleagues set the bar for scientific integrity, public health advocacy and women’s rights over decades of collaborative research with numerous groups of workers. Time after time we have modestly attempted to emulate in our own work the insights she applied and approaches she pioneered. We encourage all those interested in occupational health, gender rights and equality and social justice to read this book. You won’t be disappointed. Indeed, you will be inspired.

– James Brophy, PhD and Margaret Keith, PhD

Karen Messing is a riveting storyteller who illuminates areas usually enveloped in the fog of expertise and pedantry. She belongs to a lamentably rare breed; she is a militant intellectual. An accomplished scientist, she tells, in a personal, evocative style, of the way she came to better understand the relationships between employers, science, and labour. Her encounters with, and analyses of, science and scientists hired by capital and government to regulate working conditions lead her to question both the impartiality of science and the accompanying lack of empathy for workers, particularly women. This is a valuable book for anyone interested in social theory, sociology, and, most importantly, the health and safety of workers.

– Harry Glasbeek, author of Wealth by Stealth

Many workers have Messing and her research collaborators to thank for their efforts to make jobs adaptable and safer, and readers will be thankful for her readable, important insights and reflections.

– Herizons Magazine


Chapter 1 Factory workers
Chapter 2 The invisible world of cleaning
Chapter 3 Standing still
Chapter 4 The brains of low-paid workers
Chapter 5 Invisible teamwork
Chapter 6 Home invasion: When workers lose control over their schedules
Chapter 7 Teachers and numbers
Chapter 8 Becoming a scientist
Chapter 9 Crabs, pain and skeptical scientists
Chapter 10 A statistician’s toes and the empathy gap in scientific articles
Chapter 11 Can scientists care?