Photo: Airman Connor J Marth/US Air Force

On Worker Memorial Day: Remember the Fallen and Continue the Fight for Workplace Safety and Health

, executive director | April 26, 2019, 9:24 am EDT
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When you wake up and roll out of bed this Sunday (April 28, 2019), count your blessings. Sure, maybe it’s just another work day for you; it certainly is for the millions of people who will be working in the stores, restaurants, and gas stations you may visit. Or on the buses, trains, and planes you need to get to your destination. Or in the hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities caring for your loved ones. Or on the farms tending to the crops and livestock that will come to your table. Or in the power plants that will keep the lights on. Or on the beat and standing ready to respond to fires and other emergencies.

Or maybe for you it’s a day at home, chock full of chores, obligations, and family responsibilities. Or a day to catch up.  Or a day of leisure, fun, relaxation, or celebration.

Worker Memorial Day

Whatever Sunday has in store for you, it’s also Worker Memorial Day. In the US and around the world, it’s the one day each year dedicated to recognizing, honoring, and remembering workers who have suffered and have died of work-related injuries and illnesses. It is also the day to renew the fight for workplace safety and health.

Far too many workers still lose their lives, their health, their livelihoods, their relationships, their ability to enjoy life and engage in the routine activities of daily living because of hazards, exposure, and unsafe conditions at work. This seems to be lost on the Trump administration in its fervor to roll back worker and other public health protections.

Data tell (part of) the story

Unless you know someone who has experienced or become disabled by a work injury, or whose health and life have been upended by a toxic exposure on the job, or who died because protective measures were short-changed or lacking altogether, you may think that occupational illness, injury, and death are rare events. More about the past than the present. But data and statistics tell a different, though incomplete, story.

Fatalities: In 2017 the recorded number of fatal work injuries was 5,147.  That’s 14 people dying every day on average. In the United States. Someone’s father, mother, child, sibling, friend, or co-worker who never made it home after work—like these workers in the Houston area or 21-year-old Kevin Hartley, a bathtub refinisher whose life was cut short by exposure to toxic methylene chloride. Fatal falls were at their highest level in the 26-year history of the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI). With everything we know about fall protection, how is this possible? The loss of a loved one because of a preventable incident at work is heartbreaking enough; thinking about last moments of a fall, an asphyxiation or suffocation in a collapsing trench, or being crushed between moving parts of heavy machinery, or being fatally assaulted by a violent patient, client, or customer is horrifying.

Non-fatal cases: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), private industry employers reported 2.8 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2017, nearly one third of which were serious enough to result in days away from work—the median being eight days. BLS reports another 561,400 non-fatal injuries and illnesses among state and local public sector workers in select industries.

Costs: And then there’s the enormous economic toll that these events exact on workers, their families, and their employers. According to the 2019 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, the most serious and disabling workplace injuries cost US companies more than $55 billion per year. That’s more than $1 billion per week! But that’s just a drop in the bucket. The National Safety Council estimates the larger economic costs of fatal and non-fatal work injuries in 2017 at $161.5 billion. Lost time estimates are similarly staggering: 104 million production days lost in 2017 due to work injuries (34 million due to injuries in prior years and 55 million estimated days lost in future years due to injuries that occurred in 2017).

And even these costs don’t come close to revealing the true burden, as they do not include the costs of care and losses due to occupational illness and disease. A noteworthy and widely cited 2011 study estimated the number of fatal and non-fatal occupational illnesses in 2007 at more than 53,000 and nearly 427,000, respectively, with cost estimates of $46 billion and $12 billion, respectively.

Who bears the burden of economic costs of these largely preventable events? Primarily injured workers, their families, and taxpayer supported safety net programs. Workers’ compensation programs cover only a fraction. See more here, here, and here.

The other part of the story

With numerous studies revealing significant under-reporting of workplace injuries and illnesses (see hereherehereherehere), the true burden of occupational injury and illness is far higher. There are so many incentives not to report these events. Workers may fear reprisal, job loss, or retaliation, especially if they are immigrants or undocumented. Employers may seek to avoid inspection, citation, and increased comp costs, as well as damage to reputation in the eyes of customers, shareholders, and the community. And as most medical professionals are not trained to recognize or even inquire about a patient’s workplace hazards and exposures, the illness or injury may not even be identified as work-related. The reporting of occupational disease, like cancer caused by a chemical exposure, is particularly fraught.

Worker health and safety in the Trump administration 

The federal government has a critical role to play in protecting the health and safety of our nation’s workforce, yet the Trump administration is taking us backwards (see here, here). Between repeals, delays, rollbacks, conflicted nominations, and executive actions, the president has clearly prioritized industry interests over worker health and safety.

It’s sometimes hard to keep up; below are just a few examples that signal bad news for working people. (The litany of bad news for communities and public health in general is considerably longer, but I leave that for another time – or you can see some of it here.)

Counting blessings

As sobering at this story is, there is a silver lining. Workplace health and safety in the US has improved markedly since passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, thanks to regulatory safeguards and the enduring efforts of labor unions, working people, and other advocates.

Kudos also to the dedicated staff in our federal and state agencies who work tirelessly (often against all odds) to establish and enforce workplace safeguards, researchers who study causes and prevention of occupational disease and injury, and finally to those employers who value their workers as more than replaceable commodities and understand that cutting corners on safety is bad for business. Indeed, smart employers understand that attention to workplace safety and health is the hallmark of operational excellence and actually pays.

So, on Sunday, as I reflect on the past, present, and future of our nation’s precious workforce, I will be counting my own blessings and renewing my commitment to continue fighting this administration’s anti-regulatory fervor that takes us backwards on worker health and safety.

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