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Workers Memorial Day 2010: Ending Worker Deaths

Workers’ Memorial Day 2010: Ending Worker Deaths

On April 28, 2010, gatherings were held around the world to honor those who have died on the job and to organize for the prevention of future work-related deaths. Despite decades of struggle by workers and their unions to improve workplace safety and health, thousands of people in the U.S. still die each year from unsafe working conditions.

An average of 16 workplace deaths occur each day. The AFL-CIO “reports that in 2008, along with the 5,214 workers killed [at work], another 50,000 workers died from occupational diseases, while at least 4.6 million, or as many as 14 million workers suffered workplace injuries.” Click here to see the full AFL-CIO report. Workers’ Memorial Day is a time to remember those who have died and to renew the fight for the living.

In Oakland, CA, Worksafe, a California-based non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating workplace hazards, sponsored an event featuring remarks from workers, union organizers and occupational safety and health specialists. California may once have stood at the vanguard of workplace protections, but today in California about 6,300 workers die each year from work-related hazards – this number includes those who die from occupational disease as well as acute injuries on the job.

Worksafe unveiled its 2011 California Health & Safety Reform Agenda at the event. The Agenda targets three main areas for improvement over the coming years: Building Worker Power and Collective Action; Strengthening Health & Safety Laws and Cal/OSHA; and Protecting Injured Workers. Building worker power and collective action is key to improving workplace safety and health because “only workers, trained in OSH laws, can identify hazards and monitor their worksites on a daily basis.” Worker power requires stronger Right to Act laws “to protect workers from employer intimidation or retaliation for reporting hazards or refusing unsafe work.”

Worksafe also rallied support for the Protecting America’s Workers Act [PAWA] (H.R. 2067 and S. 1580), which would improve and expand Federal OSHA oversight, workers’ rights, and increase Federal OSH enforcement tools. More information about PAWA is available on the Protecting Workers Alliance website.

A Workers’ Memorial Day program was also held in Los Angeles. That annual event draws hundreds of workers, worker advocates, unionists, and family-members of the victims of work-related fatalities. The LA event emphasized that even though the recent weeks have seen a string of major workplace incidents garner a lot of public attention, the majority of work-related deaths occur one or two at a time and receive little notice.

US Congress Member Laura Richardson (D-CA) of Long Beach addressed the LA rally describing how workers are often taken advantage of on the job, how there is a lack of protective gear and supplies, and a lack of training. Often, workers are coerced into attending work even when sick or injured.

US Congress Member Judy Chu (D-CA) addressed the LA program, pointing out how workplace injuries can undercut families’ economic stability. She also expressed strong support for the Protecting America’s Workers Act.

Various workers also spoke about the effect of the recession on workplace safety: When productivity rises alongside a reduction in the workforce, the stress and speed of work increase, which can lead to more accidents – most if not all of which are preventable.

Speakers advocated for stronger OSH laws, regulations, and enforcement, especially for the most vulnerable workers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Latino workers suffer higher rates of workplace injuries and deaths than all other workers.

This year saw the first ever Presidential Proclamation in observance of Workers’ Memorial Day. As well, a new National Worker Memorial was completed at the National Labor College.

Across the country, participants called for stronger protection for workers. Family members and trade unionists testified at hearings urging the strengthening of anti-retaliation protection and assuring victims’ rights provisions in the OSHAct, more effective protection under the Mine Act and OSH Act, and a strong health and safety movement.

Fran Schreiberg, pro-bono attorney for KazanLaw, urged support at both the Los Angeles and Oakland events for Assembly Bill 2774 to bring California into compliance with Federal OSHA by properly defining what is constitutes serious physical harm. (Click here for an AB 2774 fact sheet. Click here for a model letter of support.)

Workers’ Memorial Day has been observed annually since 1989, raising awareness of the need for greater worker protection, honoring victims of workplace hazards, and mobilizing to better protect workers in the future.

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