Occupational injuries, deaths on the upswing
Local union members, elected officials gather at PEF for Workers Memorial Day
Story and photos By DEBORAH A. MILES
Union members from the greater Albany area gathered at PEF Headquarters to observe Workers Memorial Day. The crowd of nearly 100 included local officials such as Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy and Albany City Treasurer Darius Shahinfar.
Everyone who attended came to honor fellow workers who were injured or died on the job last year. PEF Region 8 Coordinator Michael Blue officiated at the event, saying, “We are here to renew the fight for safe jobs. This year, we come together to defend the hard-fought victories that unions have achieved for us, and to continue the fight for safer worksites.”
Ann Marie Gibson, a principal investigator at the state Health Department’s Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, relayed moving and sad stories about people who went to work, expecting to go home but died instead.
She talked softly about the officer who stopped to help a woman in distress and was killed by a passing car. And a chef who slipped off the dock at his lakeside restaurant as he was closing up alone and drowned.
“Last year, 272 New Yorkers died from an occupational injury. That is five workers every week, and it is the highest number in twenty years. It is clearly disturbing. But when we think of workplace health and safety, it is not the facts and figures. It is the real people and their families who are affected. The data doesn’t begin to capture the real meaning of these deaths,” Gibson said.
Dominick Patrignani, president IUE-CWA Local 81359, spoke of a happy-go-lucky guy with a heart of gold, a co-worker named Nicky, who fell off a roof doing a side job and died.
“Really think about every job you do and every task you do. Consider what could go wrong,” Patrignani said.
Maureen Cox, chair of the Northeastern New York Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (NENYCOSH), said, “Workplace injuries are on the rise again. We need to remember all the vulnerable workers, in particular the Latino workers. They have a fatality rate of 3.7 per 100 workers, and 67 percent of Latino workers who died on the job in 2016 were also immigrant workers subject to employment exploitation.
“Many of us have union protection and the ability to understand information provided to us. These vulnerable workers do not, and they are the ones who are the victims of employers who put profit over people. Today, we also remember those workers,” Cox said.
Charles Harvey, a compliance safety and health officer at OSHA, underlined how falls continue to be a major cause of workplace deaths which could have been prevented. He urged the attendees to join a campaign, National Safety Stand-Down (www.osha.gov/StopFallsStandDown/), to prevent falls in the construction industry. It is a voluntary event for employers to talk directly to employees about safety, held the week of May 7.
Phil Stenglein, organizer at Sheet Metal Workers Local 83, said an event was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to honor construction workers who were killed.
“This year, there were 19 empty chairs with hard hats on them. Construction work is one of the dangerous occupations in the country. When a cop is killed in the line of duty, it is well-publicized and rightly so. Construction workers are killed every day on the job and you hardly ever hear about it. These people are killed because someone wanted to save a few bucks. There are those who put profit over people, and to me, that is just as criminal as a police officer dying because of a violent act.
“We need continued action to protect construction workers, especially when lobbyists are trying to weaken the Scaffold Law in New York, just to cut corners and lessen their responsibility to maintain safe worksites.”
Stenglein then quoted Mother Jones, “Mourn for the dead, but fight like hell for the living.”
The event concluded with Reverend Peter Cook, executive director of the New York State Council of Churches, who requested a moment of silence for all fallen workers. A bell was rung for each of the 13 workers who died in the Capital Region, and a red carnation was placed in their memory as participants held up signs with the names of the fallen brothers and sisters.
The ceremony was co-sponsored by the Capital District Area Labor Federation, PEF and NENYCOSH.