Worker Memorial Day in the Time of COVID-19

April 28, 2020 | 7:09 am
Photo: pexels
Kathleen Rest
Former Executive Director

On April 28 each year, in the US and around the world, we should all pause from our daily routines to recognize, remember, and honor those who have suffered and died of injuries and illnesses related to their work.

Every year, the toll on workers’ lives, health, and livelihoods is far too high. But this year, in the midst of a pandemic, the story is especially egregious and heartbreaking.

COVID-19 shines bright light on the need for workplace health and safety

Perhaps more than ever before, the eyes of the world are focused on working men and women. The spotlight is on those who are providing the essential services we all rely on to keep society functioning– from the health care, hospital workers, and emergency responders caring for those stricken with the deadly coronavirus to the millions working to provide the food, transportation, deliveries, and other essential goods and services we all depend upon.

These essential workers are quite literally putting their lives on the line for you and for me, for all of us—the daily death toll and grim statistics speak for themselves. It will take some time and some very focused data collection before we have a reasonable estimate of the number of people who died from workplace exposure to the virus.

Most egregiously, many of these deaths have occurred when workers were required to do their jobs without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) (see here, here, here, here, here, here). Some workers have even lacked the means to take health protective measures as simple as hand-washing and social distancing.

We witness their plight and hear their pleas in news reports that break your heart and make you angry. What’s more, people of color are disproportionately represented among workers deemed essential, increasing their risk exposure and further exacerbating existing health disparities (see here, here, here).

Pre-COVID-19: Worker fatality, injury, and illness

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the statistics on worker health and safety are unsettling.

Non-Fatal Injuries and Illnesses: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, private industry employers reported over 2.8 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2018, nearly one-third of which were serious enough to result in days away from work—the median being 8 days. BLS reports another 709,900 non-fatal injuries and illnesses among state and local government workers in select industries. Yet these numbers don’t come close to revealing the true burden on our nation’s workers.

Diseases caused by exposure to occupational carcinogens, such as asbestos, silica, and diesel exhaust continue to account for a considerable disease burden worldwide, including here in the US. These and other illnesses due to exposure to toxic chemicals at work are notoriously under-reported (see herehereherehere). A 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.

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. (The Trump administration’s antipathy toward immigrants only compounds these issues.) Employers may seek to avoid inspection, citation, and increased workers’ compensation 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 ever be identified as work-related. 

Fatalities: While far from the number of COVID-19 deaths, the annual toll of work-related fatalities is still far too high.  In 2018, the recorded number of fatal work injuries was 5,250. That’s 14 people dying every day – in the United States!  That’s someone’s parent, child, sibling, partner, co-worker, or best friend who never made it home from work at the end of the day. But the data tell only part of the story; they don’t begin to capture the pain and loss of the families left behind. Or the horror they must endure thinking about their loved one’s last moments—a fall, a suffocation in a collapsing trench, crushed between moving parts of heavy machinery, or an assault by a violent patient, client, or customer.

Mirroring the racial disparities seen elsewhere, the Census for Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) reports that fatalities among Black or African American workers increased 16% in 2018, the highest total since 1999.  Fatalities among Hispanic or Latinx workers increased six percent from 2017. Sixty-seven percent of them were born outside the United States.

Our federal government is failing us

There is broad agreement across the political spectrum that the federal government’s preparedness for, coordination of, and response to the pandemic has been marred by failure. (The White House, of course, has its own opinion.)

The Union of Concerned Scientists has been tracking the administration’s anti-science activities over the course of this pandemic. I won’t reprise here this sorry litany of misinformation, sidelined scientists, and ignored public health experts, but you can follow our extensive work on this front here.

Instead, and in light of Worker Memorial Day, I focus my attention on the White House and the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

OSHA’s job is to ensure that employers provide a safe and healthy workplace. And while they have existing authority and tools to do so, the agency has essentially been missing in action during the pandemic– offering only tips and guidance and little if any meaningful help to workers in response to thousands of complaints. It hasn’t even required employers to comply with its own guidance or with guidance coming from other agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). And OSHA has still failed to establish an emergency temporary standard to address infectious disease exposure, a standard well underway in the waning days of the Obama administration.

To be fair, like other agencies OSHA has been caught up in the anti-regulatory fervor of the Trump administration. It has reduced enforcement activities, delayed and rolled back rules for worker protections, or withdrawn plans to address some workplace exposures altogether.

The agency is also under-staffed, under-resourced, and under-valuing the very population it is meant to serve – our nation’s workers. It hasn’t had a permanent leader for more than three years. So it’s no surprise that it is weak and lagging in the current crisis; it has been going backwards for some time, and now the COVID-19 pandemic shows what happens when the chickens come home to roost.

A call to action

For the White House:

Get essential workers the personal protective equipment they need. Use the Defense Production Act to ramp up production as quickly as possible, fully and fairly distribute the PPE in the national stockpile, and do whatever else it takes to provide the equipment our workers need to be safe and healthy on the job.

Follow the science and let the scientists speak.

Stop spreading confusion, false hope, and disinformation.

Say something once in a while about the need to protect the health and safety of workers. Maybe start on Worker Memorial Day.

And finally, a news flash for a White House going gangbusters to reopen the economy: protecting workers will become even more important in the months ahead. Unless employers take the necessary action to ensure safe workplaces for their employees, more workers will be sickened, infectious hot spots will proliferate, and businesses themselves suffer, further disrupting economic recovery.

For OSHA: 

Recommit to your core mission – protecting the health and safety of our nation’s workers.

Immediately issue an emergency infectious disease standard and enforce compliance to protect all front-line workers.

Use your existing authority to inspect and enforce employer compliance with existing agency standards for personal protective equipment, sanitation, and hazardous substances as well as their legally required general duty and obligation to provide a safe workplace.

Respond to and investigate coronavirus-related complaints from workers in all essential workplaces.

Require employers to use the agency’s existing reporting system for workplace injuries to document, by occupation, all COVID-19 infections and deaths among their workers.

Scale up sector-specific COVID-19 training for workers and employers and use multiple and multilingual communication channels to get the information out.

Require every employer to post visible signs and placards and otherwise inform all of their employees about their rights and whistleblower protections under them.

Work with Congress to allocate additional funding to the 21 states that administer their own OSHA plans.

A day to renew the fight

Worker Memorial Day is not just a day of remembrance. It’s a day to renew the fight for workplace safety and health.

This year, the need for action couldn’t be clearer. We are all in this pandemic together, and many workers are risking their health and lives on our behalf. Beyond social distancing, we can make a difference for them – now and into the future.

Let’s add muscle to this fight by speaking out strongly and often on the vital need for strong and enforceable worker protections. Let’s continue to fight any effort to roll back these protections and take us backwards. Let’s stand in solidarity with our working men and women and call on our elected leaders to do the same.