Today is Workers Memorial Day, the day we remember those who have died on the job. They come from all walks of life, merely trying to get ahead and create a better world for themselves and their families. And yet, each year, thousands of people die from unsafe working conditions or hazardous duty; 16 deaths per day, in fact.
Over the weekend I attended a Workers Memorial Day event in Los Angeles, at the UCLA Labor Center near MacArthur Park. I saw the makeshift memorial to some of the 404 workers who died at their place of employment in California in 2008, adorned with pictures, flowers, and also the tools of work – cleaning supplies, a computer mouse, fruits and vegetables, a surgical mask, and paint rollers. I read about Damien Whipple, 24, who fell off a train into the tracks while working to switch out rail cars. I read about Abdon Felix, 42, who collapsed in 108 degree heat while loading grapes at Sunview Farms in Delano. I read about Carlos Rivera, a 73 year-old dockworker at the Port of Long Beach who was struck by a forklift carrying rolls of sheet metal.
Every year, worker rights and safety advocates, unionists, clergy, and the families of the victims gather in Los Angeles, to honor these workers and bring awareness of the real problem of worker fatalities. They hold a mock funeral procession around the area, to make everyone in the community aware of the issue, and to demonstrate solidarity with the cause. Leaders read names of 40 of the 404 who died, and after every name, the crowd assembled replied “Presente!” in a show of unity.
Representative Laura Richardson (D-CA) of nearby Long Beach spoke at the event. She’s a former member of the Machinist’s Union, and she talked about her employment history. “I worked at ‘The Bomb Shelter,’ a restaurant area, when I went to UCLA. I cleaned the toilets and the tables, and I never recall anyone offering me any gloves,” Richardson said. “I worked at UPS, and no one offered me steel-toed shoes.” She painted a picture of workers often taken advantage of on the job, of a lack of protective gear and supplies, a lack of training, a lack of empathy by forcing workers to show up even when sick or injured, upon threat of termination.
“That’s why I support HR 2067, the Protecting America’s Workers Act,” Richardson announced to the crowd. “Even though our laws in California are better than most, they’re not good enough, and the federal laws haven’t been improved in 40 years.”
In fact, Workers Memorial Day Coincides with the anniversary of the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and Richardson is correct – many of those statutes have not been updated for a changing workplace since their passage. “It’s not good enough to put a poster on the wall,” Richardson said, “we need supervisors following the law, and if they aren’t they should be penalized.”
We’re seeing with the recent high-profile cases of worker deaths, like with the Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion, that employers have grown savvy at beating the system and circumventing regulations. That’s why they need to be strengthened and given the teeth needed to truly provide for a safe workplace.
And if anything, the recession has deepened that need. We’ve seen corporate productivity rise as their workforce gets reduced. Basically, most companies are producing more with less. The staffs have increased stress and that can lead to more accidents. Some advocates for hotel workers told me that hotel staff has been slashed across the board even as amenities increase and the workload rises. This can easily lead to preventable accidents.
In a proclamation today on the 40th anniversary of OSHA, President Obama recognized the need for constant vigilance in protecting America’s workers:
Although these large-scale tragedies are appalling, most workplace deaths result from tragedies that claim one life at a time through preventable incidents or disabling disease. Every day, 14 workers are killed in on-the-job incidents, while thousands die each year of work-related disease, and millions are injured or contract an illness. Most die far from the spotlight, unrecognized and unnoticed by all but their families, friends, and co-workers — but they are not forgotten.
The legal right to a safe workplace was won only after countless lives had been lost over decades in workplaces across America, and after a long and bitter fight waged by workers, unions, and public health advocates. Much remains to be done, and my Administration is dedicated to renewing our Nation’s commitment to achieve safe working conditions for all American workers.
Providing safer work environments will take the concerted action of government, businesses, employer associations, unions, community organizations, the scientific and public health communities, and individuals. Today, as we mourn those lost mere weeks ago in the Upper Big Branch Mine and other recent disasters, so do we honor all the men and women who have died on the job. In their memory, we rededicate ourselves to preventing such tragedies, and to securing a safer workplace for every American.
Now OSHA merely needs the proper tools to succeed in their mission. And the Protecting America’s Workers Act can provide it.