Workers' Memorial Day: Honoring Fallen Workers, Fighting for Safer Jobs

by Katie Tracy

April 26, 2017

Every worker has a right to a safe job. Yet on an average day of the week, 13 U.S. workers die on the job due to unsafe working conditions. An additional 137 lives are lost daily due to occupational diseases – mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, among others. 

On Friday – Workers' Memorial Day – we will stand with the families, friends, and colleagues of fallen workers to remember each of them as individuals whose lives represent much more than a statistic. We will also renew our vow to fight for workers' rights so that every single person who leaves home for a job in the morning returns at the end of the day with all their limbs accounted for and with their health intact. 

Workers, advocates, and forward-thinking companies have already developed many worthy ideas to improve working conditions across the nation. Some basic changes we could make that would save lives and prevent injuries include: 

  • Enhancing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA's) authority to protect workers from hazardous conditions, especially exposure to toxic chemicals;
     
  • Boosting the maximum civil and criminal penalties that OSHA can impose against violators to a level that deters bad actors from breaking the rules in the first place;
     
  • Providing workers who report health and safety hazards or refuse to perform dangerous work with better protections against retaliation;
     
  • Denying government contracts to companies with lengthy rap sheets; and
     
  • Increasing OSHA's budget so that the agency has resources to bring on more safety and health inspectors. 

With roughly 150 deaths per day, and thousands of work-related injuries, workers need more protection. Unfortunately though, the Trump administration, conservative members of Congress, and industry lobbyists are doing everything they can to block common-sense solutions. President Trump has already signed two congressional resolutions that roll back important Obama-era rules to improve working conditions – one rule would have ensured that federal contractors protect workers from hazardous conditions, wage theft, and retaliation, and the other would have required employers to maintain accurate records of work-related injuries and illnesses.

And that's not all Trump has done in his first months in office to dismantle worker protections at the behest of big businesses. He has also delayed implementation of OSHA's newest chemical exposure limits – for silica dust and beryllium. These rules took decades to finalize and will save hundreds of lives a year once they are in effect. But every time they get delayed, workers are left in harm's way for no good reason, increasing the chance they'll develop debilitating, often fatal diseases that will devastate their families. Not only is the fate of these rules unknown, new safeguards to address other hazards like heat stress, toxic chemicals, and workplace violence seem exceedingly unlikely from the Trump administration, putting even more lives in danger. 

Trump has proposed cutting the Department of Labor's budget by 21 percent, making it practically impossible for OSHA to carry out its basic tasks like conducting inspections and citing employers for violating worker health and safety standards. At current funding levels, federal OSHA has only 815 safety and health inspectors, meaning it would take, on average, 159 years for the agency to inspect all workplaces under its jurisdiction. The states that oversee their own occupational safety and health plans (state-plan states) don't fare much better than federal OSHA – with a total of 1,023 inspectors, it would take an average of 99 years to inspect every workplace in these states. Clearly, OSHA needs more inspectors, not less. 

This Workers' Memorial Day, join with others in your community to commemorate fallen workers and resist bad polices and budget cuts by attending one of the hundreds of gatherings taking place across the country. To find an event near you, visit http://coshnetwork.org/workers-memorial-week-events-2017.

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Also from Katie Tracy

Katie Tracy, J.D., joined CPR as a workers’ rights policy analyst in May 2015. Her previous experience includes working for more than two years as a regulatory policy analyst at the Center for Effective Government, where she advocated for strong regulations to protect health, safety, and the environment.

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