Workers' Memorial Day - April 28, 2014
Workers' Memorial Day is a day to honor those workers who have died on the job, to acknowledge the grievous suffering experienced by families and communities, and to recommit ourselves to the fight for safe and healthful workplaces for all workers.
Every day in America, on average, 12 people go to work and never come home, and each year nearly 4 million people suffer a workplace injury from which some may never recover. Before the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1970, an estimated 14,000 workers were fatally injured on the job every year. Many more died from diseases caused by exposure to benzene, silica, asbestos and other serious health hazards. Today workplaces are much safer and healthier. But there is still much work to be done. That means fighting to fix the hazards exposed by workers’ deaths to protect the health, safety, and lives of other workers, and also making sure that the families and loved ones of workers killed on the job have the financial and emotional support they need to cope with workplace tragedies.
According to official numbers, some 4,628 workers were killed by occupational injuries or illnesses in 2012 in the United States, though this number vastly understates the human tragedy of work-related fatalities. As National COSH (National Council of Occupational Safety and Health) reports in its 2014 Preventable Deaths report, as many as 50,000 deaths from occupational diseases go unreported every year, and at least 700 work-related deaths each year could be prevented. Hundreds if not thousands of workers, in other words, are killed by employer negligence, lax health and safety standards, poor enforcement, inadequate health and safety training, and an economy that places more value on profits than on workers’ lives.
The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) itself admits that something is seriously wrong. According to Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels, “Worker injuries, illnesses and deaths should never be accepted as simply ‘the cost of doing business’. Even one death on the job is one too many.” Unfortunately, the workplace hazards that you usually hear about are the ones you can see — trenches and grain silos, fall hazards and forklifts, electrical wiring and machines with moving parts. But many of the most serious hazards are the “silent killers” – the ones we can’t see, such as airborne chemicals and fine particles of dust.
American workers use tens of thousands of chemicals every day. While many of these chemicals are known or suspected of being harmful, we have workplace exposure standards for only a small fraction. Workers pay the price for lack of regulation – workplace chemical exposures that have already occurred are responsible for tens of thousands of worker deaths every year. Some of these silent killers, like silica dust and asbestos, work slowly over years of continuous exposure. Other chemicals, like lead and formaldehyde, can have serious effects after relatively short exposures. Whether slow or fast, these tragedies can and must be prevented. OSHA states that in the near future, we will be calling on employers, unions, workers, safety and health professionals and researchers to engage in a conversation on how to better protect workers from these serious chemical hazards.
When a worker is killed on the job, his or her family faces a double financial hit: they lose that workers’ wages and also face significant costs to lay their loved one to rest. From state to state, workers’ compensation does not provide families with enough financial support: ongoing wage-replacement payments are often far too low to allow families to continue to meet their daily needs, and funeral payments typically do not cover the full cost of a funeral, much less families’ travel to the funeral and time off from work to handle affairs and grieve.
On top of financial struggles, families who are already suffering from the untimely loss of a loved one must also endure the emotional turmoil of questions and indignities brought on by inadequate government transparency and accountability. Unresponsive public agencies too often fail to hold employers accountable for worker safety following a fatality, communicate poorly with families, and do not provide families with enough opportunity to report on how the death has impacted them. On top of all this, families are often wracked with grief and unanswered questions, yet are not provided with access to mental health services that they might need to help them grapple with their loss.
By not providing adequate support, workers’ compensation and other agencies leave families to cope in isolation, but many people are finding ways to come together to support one another and to organize for policies to prevent workplace tragedies and meet the needs of those mourning lost loved ones. Many of these families have found support and common cause in United Support & Memorial for Workplace Fatalities (USMWF), an organization founded by and for the families of workers killed on the job. USMWF has just released the Family Bill of Rights, Volume 2, which explains the devastating impact of workers' deaths on family members and establishes a set of rights that should be recognized for all families who lose a loved one on the job. These rights place a number of obligations on government agencies and employers:
- Workers’ compensation must meet families’ full needs when a loved one dies from a work-related injury or disease. This includes the full cost of a funeral, including travel and family members’ time off from work, lost wages due to bereavement, and mental health services. Benefits must be paid to a worker’s parents if he or she does not have a spouse or dependents.
- The Department of Labor (DOL) must be transparent and accountable to families. The DOL must communicate effectively with every worker’s family after a work-related fatality, and give them the opportunity to provide an impact statement on the death of their loved one.
- OSHA must protect all workers’ safety without exception. OSHA should extend its regulations to public workers who are currently excluded from protections, require that all employers’ safety officers have proper training and credentials, and ensure that all evidence from workplace fatalities is preserved.
- Delays in medical attention and reporting must be prohibited. Employers must never be allowed to delay emergency responders, and must notify OSHA of deaths in a timely manner.
Ultimately, employers are responsible for keeping their workplaces safe and healthy – it’s not only their legal obligation, it’s the right thing to do. Responsible employers know that protecting workers is the best investment they can make in their workplace. But we need all employers to make worker safety and health a priority.
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