Workers Memorial Day to highlight jobs that kill

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NEW YORK (PAI) - Eddie Mallon is 70 years old. As a Laborers Local 147 member in New York, he worked as a sandhog for 44 years. He doesn't now, because that job - eventually - will kill him.

Eddie's doctor ordered him to retire from active work at construction sites. He has silicosis, one of the many job-related illnesses that sicken workers yearly. Later, many die.

Mallon, now a local business agent, fears that could happen to young workers entering the construction trades.

"In my 40-plus years of working underground, I experienced many hazards including very dusty environments and exposure to silica," he told the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's recent hearings on a new, tighter, standard for worker exposure to silica, a cancer cause.  "Concrete burns from exposures to cement were also a problem.

"In my experience, the work environment has gotten more dangerous in recent years.  Exposures to dust and silica are more extensive because of the use of larger drilling equipment.  Dust controls used by contractors today do not keep up with the amount of dust generated and need to be improved.  I am very concerned that the young workers coming into our business today will have more respiratory health problems than even we experienced unless these exposures are better controlled."

And many times, companies leave workers on their own to take care of job safety and health.   A non-union contractor in St. Louis exposed its workers to lead-based paint dust and flakes during school rehabilitation projects, until the Painters there blew the whistle to the school board - and until the St. Louis Labor Tribune told the story to the whole city. 

And Wisconsin construction worker Jose Granados told the OSHA hearing that "I put a wet handkerchief over my mouth and nose" to protect himself from silica dust.  His employer provided no protective equipment.

Stories like Mallon's drive Workers Memorial Day observances nationwide, each April 28.  This year's ceremonies will include a workers' march in Manhattan to a dangerous job site, and an April 29 U.S. Senate hearing in D.C., on corporate retaliation against whistle-blower workers who expose job safety and health concerns.  OSHA recently sued a leading telecom firm in federal court in Cleveland for, in so many words, disciplining 13 whistle-blowers.

But overriding all of that is the fact that more than 4,000 workers die on the job each year - and that doesn't count those who will die after the fact from job-related ills and injuries.

"Each day in this country, on average 13 workers die because of job injuries," the AFL-CIO says.  They're "women and men who go to work,  never to return home to their families and loved ones. This does not include those workers who die from occupational diseases, estimated to be 50,000 each year - an average of 137 deaths each day. "

"More than four decades ago, the Occupational Safety and Health Act was signed into law, which promises every worker the right to a safe job. That promise has not been kept," Laborers President Terry O'Sullivan adds.

Though construction is prominent in the on-the-job death and injury data, workers die in all sorts of jobs.  A recent University of Cincinnati study, commissioned by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, showed higher-than-normal rates of testicular, prostate, bone marrow, skin, brain and rectal cancers among the nation's Fire Fighters.  That's because they're exposed to toxic homes when fighting fires, the researchers found.

"Forty-three years ago, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, promising every worker the right to a safe job," Teamsters President James Hoffa adds.  "Decades of struggle by workers and their unions resulted in significant improvements in working conditions.  Unions have won laws and protections that have made workplaces safer for all workers.  Union contracts have also given workers a voice on the job.

"But the toll of workplace injuries, illnesses, and deaths still remains enormous.  Some Teamster members are particularly at risk, suffering very high rates of job injuries and fatalities.  Highway incidents continue to be the leading cause of on-the-job fatalities, and truck drivers suffer more on-the-job fatalities than any other individual occupation.

"Ergonomic hazards cripple and injure hundreds of thousands of workers every year and musculoskeletal disorder cases continue to increase and remain the nation's biggest workplace safety and health problem, without corresponding standards to prevent them."

Workers also fear retaliation if they blow the whistle on unsafe practices.  Members of Steel Workers Local 13-1 at the former BP plant in Texas City, Texas - the one that blew up nine years ago, killing 15 people and injuring 170 more - told Press Associates earlier this year that its new owner, Marathon Oil, warned them not to strike over safety hazards.  If they do, they'll be permanently replaced. 

That's common, the Teamsters' Hoffa adds, and OSHA's Cleveland lawsuit shows.

"Hundreds of workers are fired or harassed by their employers each year simply for voicing job-safety concerns or reporting injuries.   Although there are dozens of whistleblower protection and anti-retaliation laws on the books, some are simply too weak and others are just not aggressively enforced due to insufficient funding of the regulatory agencies," Hoffa says. 

"As such, whistle-blower and anti-retaliation provisions are not adequately protecting workers who try to exercise their legal rights to speak out on workplace safety," he adds.  OSHA now is telling its inspectors to cite employers for disciplining whistle-blowers.

OSHA tries to get employers to cooperate on health and safety issues.  Some do so.  The agency and construction firms recently announced a national Safety Stand-Down during the week of June 2-6 to address the largest fatality risk in construction: Falls.

"Each year, more than 200 construction workers are killed and over 10,000 are seriously injured by falls. The campaign's goal is to prevent fatal falls from roofs, ladders, and scaffolds by encouraging construction contractors to plan ahead to get the job done safely, provide the right equipment, and train everyone to use the equipment safely," the agency told the Center to Protect Workers Rights.

"The Stand-Down is a voluntary event for employers to talk directly to employees about hazards, protective methods, and the company's safety policies, goals and expectations. Com-panies can conduct a Safety Stand-Down by stopping work and providing a focused toolbox talk on a safety topic such as ladder safety, fall protection equipment, or scaffolds safety." 

Photo: Earlier this year workers at the BP Texas City plant that blew up in 2005 told the Peoples World that Marathon, the current owner of that plant, has warned that they will be replaced if they strike over safety issues. AP

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