It is only a misdemeanor to kill a worker by willfully violating safety laws. The maximum sentence is six months in jail. The recent killing of 15 refinery workers and the injury of more than 100 in the BP oil refinery explosion in Texas, the drowning of four boatman in the towboat accident on the Ohio River, as well as the recent increase in serious accidents and deaths in the steel industry makes this year’s observation of Workers Memorial Day all the more meaningful, important and poignant.

Workers Memorial Day is an international day of remembrance held on April 28 to honor workers killed on the job and to focus on the struggle for improved workplace safety.

Every year about 6,000 people are killed at work and about 50,000 die from occupational diseases caused by asbestos, pesticides, solvents and chemicals.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration lacks the resources to protect the 100 million workers under its jurisdiction. OSHA’s current budget of $475 million amounts to about $4 per worker. Federal OSHA has only about 900 safety inspectors and can only inspect workplaces on average once every 100 years. The number of hours spent per OSHA inspection continues to decrease.

The number of cases “downgraded” to less serious violations is rising. Penalties for serious violations remain low and are routinely reduced through a process called abatement. The average penalty for a serious violation is around $900. This downgrading combined with inadequate workers’ compensation laws make it impossible to hold negligent employers criminally and civilly liable.

Workers Memorial Day 2005 is the day we rededicate ourselves to correcting these inadequacies. American workers need a strong workplace safety agency that puts workers first. Unsafe working conditions cannot be excused and dead workers cannot be an accepted cost of doing business.