By DEBORAH A. MILES
Workers’ Memorial Day, April 28, is a day set aside worldwide to reflect upon workers who were killed, disabled, injured or made ill as a result of their jobs. It is also a time to evaluate all worksites, from offices to farm fields, and find solutions to areas that have the potential of harming one’s health.
This year, the national AFL-CIO has selected a theme for what is now known as International Workers’ Memorial Day – “Dangerous substances – get them out of the workplace,” with a focus mainly on carcinogens.
The slogan is: “Work shouldn’t be dangerous. We should be making things, not orphans.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health share a mission to have safer work sites and standards for all.
This year, 25 years of data has been released about worker injury, illness and fatality cases. The good news includes a 17 percent decrease in fatal occupational injuries since 1992, yet in 2016, there were approximately 14 deaths per day, which means a worker died from a fatal work injury every 102 minutes.
One of the advantages of having a union job includes health and safety protections. In 2016, the fatal injury rate for self-employed workers was 13.1 fatalities per 100,000 full-time workers, and that was more than four times the rate for wage and salary workers, which was 3.0 fatalities.
Nonfatal injury and illness cases that involve one or more days away from work, or a job transfer or restriction made up roughly half of all nonfatal injuries in private industry in 2016. The proportion of job transfer or restricted cases, where a worker is on restricted duty or transferred to another job as a result of an injury, has grown over the past 25 years.
The occupations that have the highest injuries are nursing assistants, institutional or cafeteria cooks, law enforcement officers, firefighters, janitors and cleaners, emergency medical technicians, teachers, and lastly, registered nurses.
Fatal occupational injuries are ranked with the construction industry on top, followed by transportation and warehousing, manufacturing, crop farming, landscaping and oil and gas extraction industries.
Older workers, anyone above the age 65, face a greater risk of being killed at work than workers as a whole.
Although for the past years, the “fatal four” injury causes were listed as falls, being struck by an object, electrocutions, and trapped between machinery. Transportation or roadway incidents were the leading cause of workplace death from 2011 to 2016.
In 2017, the number of people killed on the job was 5,147.
While the current data makes us informed and cognizant of our daily health and safety situations, it’s also a time to look back at the roots of Workers’ Memorial Day.
In Canada, a comprehensive Workers’ Compensation Act was passed April 28, 1914. Seventy-one years later in 1985, the Canadian Labour Congress declared April 28 as an annual day of remembrance, and the Canadian Parliament passed an Act in 1991 making April 28 an official Workers’ Mourning Day.
In the United States, Workers’ Memorial Day was recognized in 1989, after trade unions in North America, Asia, Europe and Africa organized events on April 28. Today, events are held around the globe that include multi-faith services, laying wreaths, planting trees, unveiling monuments and raising public awareness of unsafe working conditions.
Long before April 28 was nationally recognized, tragedies have highlighted the need for occupational safety. One of the most notable events was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire where 146 workers died. It was on the night of March 25, 1911 where the victims of the fire, mostly girls and young women of Jewish or Italian decent, were laid out on the 26th Street pier in New York City, their dead bodies to be claimed by relatives.
The Triangle factory was located on the eighth through tenth floors of a building that had locked exit doors and no sprinklers. Smoke and flames emerged and were visible just when workers had finished their shift on a Saturday. The firefighters’ ladders reached only to the sixth floor. Many died of smoke inhalation and others jumped to their deaths.
Against great odds, garment workers united and brought change after a series of strikes coordinated by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.
Nearly five decades ago, the U.S. Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, promising every worker the right to a safe job. Unions have fought hard to make that promise a reality, but many job hazards are still unregulated and uncontrolled.
Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis urged all Americans to raise their voices in support of workers’ right to a safe and healthier workplace.
“One workplace death is too many,” Solis said. “Making a living shouldn’t include dying.”