Workers Memorial Day Spotlights Death and Injuries on the Job

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WASHINGTON - The food on your dining table comes at a particularly high price, not in dollars and cents, but in lives.

A recent report from the Center for Progressive Reform, citing federal data, says one farm worker dies on the job every day of the year. Hundreds more get injured or ill. The report was issued as unions across the country commemorated April 28 as Workers Memorial Day, a time to remember those killed and injured on the job and renew the commitment to workplace safety.

"The hazards of farm work run the gamut," the report adds. "Oppressive heat is common in every area with major agriculture. Heavy loads and repetitive motion strain workers' bodies. Slips, trips, and falls happen on a regular basis. Irrigation equipment can electrocute workers. Tractors overturn. Workers can become entrapped in grain silos and engulfed in clouds of pesticides. In short, farm work is dangerous business."

The farm workers whom the report cites are 98% non-union because federal labor law bans farm workers from its coverage. That lack of protection, among other factors - many farm workers are immigrants and 44% don't speak English -- are not the only workers who die on the job. They're just some of the most-frequent victims.

Last year, they were joined by truck drivers killed in crashes, 17 union workers dying in derailments, warehouse workers in Illinois and California, toiling for Wal-Mart, who collapse in 110-degree heat, and even utility linemen shot to death by irate customers, among others. Some 4,000 workers died on the job, according to federal data.

And while industrial accidents that kill and injure dozens of workers, such as the ammonia plant blast in Texas, get the headlines, state and federal inspectors discover job safety and health violations almost daily. But many go unreported.

In one typical example, OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, announced just in mid-April that it wants to fine the New England Confectionery Company in Revere, Mass., $133,000 for widespread and willful health and safety violations inspectors found there last year. Multiply Revere by hundreds of plants.

Meanwhile, Workers Memorial Day ceremonies nationwide on April 28 honored all workers killed on the job, including the truck drivers, the rail workers, the ammonia plant workers and the farm workers. The theme of the observances, as always, was "Pray for the dead, fight like hell for the living."

Commemorations ranged from a prayer vigil with bagpipes and a bugle at a workers' memorial in Cumberland, Md., to an annual remembrance of the 506 workers who died over the years at U.S. Steel's plant in Gary, Ind. There also was a memorial ceremony at the Manhattan site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where 146 workers died 101 years ago.

Besides the workers who die on the job every year - a number that declined sharply since unions pushed through the law creating OSHA in 1970 - hundreds of thousands more suffer on-the-job injuries or illnesses. OSHA does what it can to stop the carnage, unionists say, but neither the law nor the agency is strong enough.

The best honor those workers could get, the union leaders say, is for Congress to beef up OSHA's strength, adding inspectors, increasing fines, and extending its coverage to the 22 million federal, state and local government workers: Teachers, Fire Fighters, police, corrections officers and more. The maximum fine against a firm when a worker dies on the job is $7,500. And the law should have more and better protections for whistleblowers, the unionists add.

Fixing some of the holes is the point of the Protecting America's Workers Act, reintroduced by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

But the biggest sanction OSHA now lacks, and that Murray's bill does not provide, is to give the agency the power to unilaterally declare a worksite so unsafe that it must shut down. Gary Beevers, the Steel Workers vice president who heads their oil and chemical workers sector, says that power would change corporate attitudes fast.

A multi-million-dollar fine means nothing, he says, to ExxonMobil. Shutting an oil refinery whose leaking toxic fumes killed workers and others would.


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