WASHINGTON (PAI)--Union leaders and Obama administration Labor Department officials honored the fallen - workers killed on the job over the decades - with somber statements on Workers Memorial Day, April 28. Many declared that one death on the job was one too many. But remembrance was not the only theme of the observances.
The Senate Labor Committee holds an April 29 hearing on employer retaliation against worker whistle-blowers who report job safety and health violations to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) released a report on safety and health enforcement, or lack of it, in the Empire State. And in Manhattan, unions and their allies marched on a dangerous jobsite.
"No worker should die on the job. Every one of the 150 working men and women who die every day from injury or occupational disease serve as a constant reminder of the dangers too many face at the workplace," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said.
"I saw those dangers myself as a third-generation coal miner, and I know the heartache that ripples through entire communities when one of our own dies. As we keep those who died in our thoughts and prayers, we should rededicate ourselves to holding companies account-able for putting profits over people, and we must demand stronger safety standards in the workplace." The latest available federal data show 4,628 workers died on the job in 2012.
"Much has been done to improve worker safety, but until every worker, from the farm to the factory, is guaranteed the peace of mind of a safe workplace, our job will never truly be done," Trumka declared. Excerpts from other statements included:
"We honor those we have lost by remembering that safe jobs save lives and by working toward the day when each of us can go to work and return home safely to our families and loved ones," said Laborers President Terry O'Sullivan.
"Though the Occupational Safety and Health Act has been the law of the land for more than four decades, we still have much to be done to make work safer, particularly in the construction industry. In 2012 - the most recent reporting year - construction fatalities rose 5 percent over 2011. It was the first annual increase in six years, resulting mostly from transportation incidents, such as highway flaggers being struck by cars, and from falls, trench cave-ins and equipment mishaps...In addition to accidents, workers are needlessly exposed to dangerous materials. In 2013, we made significant progress in limiting exposure to silica and look forward to implementation of a silica safety standard."
"Workers everywhere deserve a safe place to work, and those corporations that exploit workers for profit and put them in danger must be held accountable," the United Food and Commercial Workers said. "UFCW takes to heart the words of activist Mother Jones to 'pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living' by reaffirming our dedication to supporting workers here in the U.S. and around the world who are fighting to uphold their basic rights - including safe jobs, workplace fairness and collective bargaining."
"No one should have to live in fear that they might die at work," said Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley. "This Workers' Memorial Day we renew our commitment to fight for a safe workplace for all, and a decreasing number of workers who lose their lives on the job."
"All too often, however, workers die needlessly because employers cut corners, and stop following the regulations that are supposed to protect their employees from danger," he warned. ""Some legislators are now advocating rolling back the laws that mandate these regulations to increase employer profits - worker safety be damned. This has to stop. Transit workers are at risk too, as operators are now subjected to an ever-increasing onslaught of deadly assaults.
"And, because they are legally exempt from paying overtime, interstate bus companies feel free to overwork their low-paid drivers causing the driver fatigue that leads to injury and death on our highways. At ATU we fight unceasingly to protect our members and the public we serve."
"No one should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood," said Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. "It's always worth remembering that in 1970, the year OSHA was created, there were an estimated 14,000 workplace fatalities. That's a staggering number - think about it: it's more than one life lost every hour of every day - day and night, weekends and holidays. But today, with a workforce twice as large, that number has dropped to 4,628 - the second lowest annual total since BLS first conducted the census of fatal injuries in 1992.
But frankly, that's 4,628 too many. And so every single one of us, every morning when we wake up and our feet hit the floor, must commit ourselves more than ever to this cause."
Perez singled out reducing worker exposure to silica, following the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's recent hearings on its proposed rule to accomplish that - and on industry opposition to the reduction.
"How many more families have to bury their loved ones before we do something?
The fact is that we've been studying this issue for decades and decades. In 1936, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins convened a national conference of experts to study silicosis. This is a summary of their findings, in Secretary Perkins' own words: 'This report shows how silicosis occurs, where it occurs, and what the disease is. And it makes recommendations for its practical control. Above all, the report emphasizes that [if] these control measures [are] conscientiously adopted and applied...silicosis can be prevented.'"
NYCOSH's It's No Accident: A Report On Workplace Deaths in New York State - Focus On Construction, called that sector the deadliest industry, with immigrants comprising half of all construction deaths. Most were preventable, it said. Its other points included:
*OSHA fines are too low to incentivize safety, with an average fine of $12,767; and It would take OSHA 103 years to inspect every New York worksite. With only 71 inspectors, OSHA staffing is at its lowest level in five years. The report recommended "substantially increasing" OSHA's budget, inspectors and inspections.
*A recommendation to protect New York's Scaffold Safety Law. The law holds employers accountable when they cut corners on workers' safety when working at heights and put workers lives at risk.
*Implement U.S. Labor Department pilot projects targeting specific industries where high percentages of immigrants work, including construction, and increasing the number of OSHA staffers "who are qualified interpreters and who are fluent in the most common languages spoken by limited English proficiency workers."
"It's sad enough that all of these men and women died," said NYCOSH Executive Director Charlene Obernauer. "But to think that their deaths could have been prevented is just tragic. I hope our elected officials learn from these deaths and implement our common-sense recommendations before another preventable death occurs."