public employee

Why do I often roll my eyes and shake my head when I read about a city or county or state that names a road or bridge after a worker killed on the job?

I’m not opposed to memorials for workers killed on the job. In fact, I’m generally highly supportive.  I participate every April 28 in Workers Memorial Day commemorations, where, in the eternal words of Mother Jones, we dedicate ourselves to mourn for the dead and fight for the living.

Barely a week ever goes by without listing at least one or more public employees in the Weekly Toll. So it turns my stomach a bit when I read about memorials to public employees “who lost their lives while serving the citizens” of one of the 23 states in this country that don’t even provide them with the most basic health and safety protections.*

Clearly the  memorials listed below are very meaningful to the families, friends and co-workers of those killed on the job. But it would be far more meaningful to have their loved ones at home, or failing that, at least some indication that the state and the laws of the state provide other public employees with the right and ability to come home alive and healthy from the job every day.

It turns my stomach a bit when I read about memorials to public employees “who lost their lives while serving the citizens” of a state that doesn’t even provide them with the most basic workplace health and safety protections.

For example, in dedicating a memorial to Kenneth Guild, Peter C. Nourse, Director of Rochester, New Hampshire, City Services stated that:

“Each year, hundreds of municipal and state employees’ lives are lost in the course of their duties to serve the public. NH has recognized their extraordinary service to us and their loss to family, friends, and society by memorializing their names in our Capital. Rochester shares in that loss and with the addition of Kenneth Guild’s name to the Public Works Memorial, we reflect with gratitude and humility his service to our City.”

I don’t question for a moment Nourse’s sincerity, but wouldn’t it have been more meaningful if he had also announced that he was dedicating himself to championing legislation to ensure that all New Hampshire public employees have a right to a safe workplace?


When the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHAct) was passed in 1970, public employees were exempted from coverage, with two exceptions. State plan states that covered their private sector employees are also required to cover their public sector employees. 21 states run their own state plans.

States covered by federal OSHA were also given the opportunity to establish a program to provide OSHA coverage to only their public employees and federal OSHA would fund up to 50% of those programs and continue to cover the private sector. Unfortunately, over the past 50 years, only 6 states — Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Maine — and most recently, Massachusetts — have chosen to adopt public employee only OSHA programs. A bill that would provide public employee coverage is pending in Pennsylvania (as it has for the last 40 or so years.)

Public employees are not in this sorry situation because their work is safer. Far from it.

Some people think that public employees are just white collar bureaucrats working in nice, safe antiseptic offices.  But actually these are the people that fix our roads, watch our criminals, deal with whatever we flush down the toilet, staff public hospitals and mental health institutions, fight fires, protect us from bad guys, teach our children, keep our parks clean and safe, and much, much more.  In other words, they do the hard, dirty and dangerous work that makes life in this country safe and enjoyable. And for that they get less pay, little respect, few collective bargaining rights and unsafe workplaces.

Public employees do the hard, dirty and dangerous work that makes life in this country safe and enjoyable. And for that they get less pay, little respect, few collective bargaining rights and unsafe workplaces.

Local and state government employees —  are much more likely to be injured on the job than private sector employees. Healthcare workers in the public sector pay the highest price for lack of OSHA coverage. In 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that state government healthcare and social service workers were nearly nine times more likely to be injured by an assault than healthcare workers in the private sector. Those working in mental health facilities suffer the most. In 2019, the rate of assault-related injuries for state psychiatric aides was an astronomical 1,460.1 per 10,000 workers.

OSHA coverage is clearly not going stop all public employees from dying on the job. Many of those memorialized on highways were killed in highway workzones, sometimes by impaired drivers. How many of those deaths were caused by missing barriers and lights.  And many public employees are also killed by machinery malfunctions, trench collapses, electrocutions.

But OSHA coverage will require public employers to comply with minimum health and safety standards and will reduce the number of public employees killed or injured on the job. Along with giving workers the right to call for an OSHA inspection, — ideally before someone is hurt — OSHA coverage also requires OSHA to investigate workplace incidents and require measures to be taken to ensure that no one else will be hurt.

Without OSHA coverage, we often we see no investigations, or token inquiries by the employers themselves that provide no useful information or come to the simple — and wrong — conclusion that the tragedy was unavoidable, that it must be due to “worker error” or a “freak accident.”  Or maybe just carelessness.  “Terrible tragedy, but what are you going to do? People make mistakes. So sorry. Let’s move on.”

And dedicate a memorial.

What is to be done?

As Mother Jones explained, mourning and fighting should go together.  Because just mourning the preventable deaths of workers, without fighting to prevent them and make workplaces safer is nothing more than an empty gesture to look like you care and make everyone feel good for a little while.  But actually you’re just glossing over the fact that no effort is being made to prevent the injuries and deaths that you mourn.

So what can be done? Legislatures in the 23 states that don’t cover public employees can pass laws providing for federally approved public employee OSHA plans — just as Massachusetts recently did. Those plans are overseen by federal OSHA to ensure that their standards and enforcement are at least as effective as federal OSHA, and the federal government funds half of the costs of the program.

But public employer organizations — the League of Cities, Conference of Mayors, National Association of Counties — oppose OSHA coverage for their employees. The states and cities were already doing a fine job protecting their public employees, they say. And anyway, it would costs cities and counties too much and (horrors!) cause tax increases. (Although I could never figure out how something they are allegedly already doing would cost too much.)

A better solution would be for Congress to ignore the petty fear-mongering of public employers and pass the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA),  which, among other things, would provide OSHA coverage to all public employees.

I understand that passage of PAWA would be a radical idea for this country: giving public employees that same right to live, and and the same right to come home safe and healthy at the end of every work day that private sector employees have had since 1970.

I understand that passage of the Protecting America’s Workers Act would be a radical idea for this country: giving public employees that same right to live, and and the same right to come home safe and healthy at the end of every work day that private sector employees have had since 1970.

The media can also help. I’m pretty sure that only a handful of reporters in those states know that public employees have no right to come home safe at the end of the workday.

And of course the Governors and legislators in each of the 23 states that don’t cover public employees can fix the problem. Why aren’t they?

But the best way for workers to protect their safety and health is through their unions.  Many public employees, however, lack not only OSHA protections, but also collectives bargaining rights, which fall under the authority of state or local governments, rather than the National Labor Relations Act.

So it would help enormously if unions representing public employees did more to educate their members about health and safety hazards, and how to take action to prevent them. When I worked for AFSCME in the 1980s and 1990s, many of our member weren’t even aware that they had no legal right to come home alive at the end of the day.

But at this time, neither AFSCME nor SEIU — two of the largest unions representing public employees — have any health and safety staff (although AFSCME is apparently looking.) Most of their staffs were eliminated in the early 2000 to provide more money for organizing. (Which is highly ironic considering that much of the organizing boom we’re witnessing today comes from workers’ concerns over their safety on the job.)

And you will look long and hard — and ultimately unsuccessfully — to find the health ands safety section in their websites.  AFT is doing better, especially for its health care workers, and even NEA has finally hired health and safety staff.

Public Employee Memorials

What am I talking about? Things like this.

Blair County bridge named after PennDOT worker who was killed on the job

BLAIR COUNTY, Pa (WTAJ) – A Blair County bridge was named after a PennDOT worker who was killed while he was on the job in 2018. Bryan T. “Chipper” Chamberlain died in an accident after the heavy machinery he was a passenger in had a break malfunction and rolled down an embankment. “It tears me up that something like this had to happen, but didn’t have to happen. If safety would have been, if they would have followed the safety, from what I understand that morning there was supposed to be a mechanic to come out and work on the machine and I don’t know what happened,” Gary Chamberlain, Bryan’s father said.

Oklahoma Transportation Department honors workers killed on the job

House Bill 2474, signed in 2008 by then-Gov. Brad Henry, stated: “Any highway worker killed while working on a section of highway after the effective date of this act shall have that mile of road named in honor of their memory.” The previous year, the Transportation Department had placed nine Work Zone memorials throughout Oklahoma.
On Nov. 30, 2011, Ira Henderson, transportation equipment operator with Washington County Maintenance, was struck by a speeding car while working with his crew on U.S. 75 just north of Ramona.
On June 25, 2012, Tim Vandiver, superintendent of Checotah Interstate Maintenance, was hit while he was stopped on the side of the highway at the beginning of a work zone on eastbound Interstate 40, just east of Henryetta in Okmulgee County.
On June 13, 2011, Terry Clubb, transportation inspector with Oklahoma City Construction Residency, was injured when a tractor-trailer delivering asphalt overturned as he was inspecting construction activities on the east end of the new I-40 Crosstown. He died the next day.
On March 27, 2013, Becco employee Patrick Boyle, 59, was killed inside a work zone on a city street project in Tulsa. Police say Boyle was setting traffic cones when he was struck by a vehicle.
On June 30, 2010, two workers were struck by a car and killed while working on the I-40 widening project just west of Yukon in Canadian County. Salvador Hernandez, 48, and his nephew, Jose Hernandez, 20, both worked for Duit Construction.

Street Name Changed to Honor City Worker Killed by Driver

Fayetteville, Arkansas — For the first time since her husband was killed during work, the wife of a Fayetteville street employee sharing what life is like. It’s been five months since Jack Luper was hit by a car. Now, the city he devoted more than 30 years to is honoring him. Driving down Joyce Boulevard there are few reminders of the accident that claimed Luper’s life. But soon, this street where he spent his last moments will bear his name.

JPs name bridge for worker killed there

Fayetteville, Arkansas — Washington County Quorum Court members approved naming a bridge after a county employee who was killed there last June. Hancil “Tiny” Hartbarger III died June 5 when he was struck by an automobile while performing his duties with the Washington County Road Department. To honor Hartbarger, the Quorum Court passed a resolution Thursday to name the bridge on Black Oak Road where the incident occurred The Hancil ‘Tiny’ Hartbarger III Memorial Bridg

Former Public Works Employee Added to State Memorial

Rochester, New Hampshire — Peter C. Nourse, Director of Rochester City Services, has announced that the name of Kenneth Guild, a city employee that was tragically killed in a workplace accident in 1981, will be added to a state memorial in Concord. The Memorial is dedicated to the Public Works employees who have died while performing public duties for the people of New Hampshire. “Each year, hundreds of municipal and state employees’ lives are lost in the course of their duties to serve the public,” said Nourse. “NH has recognized their extraordinary service to us and their loss to family, friends, and society by memorializing their names in our Capital.

Highway in Dent County to be Named after MODOT Worker Killed on the Job

Salem, Missouri — A section of Highway 32 in Salem between Highway 72 and Craig Industrial Drive will be named the Gerald T. Lizotte Jr. Memorial Highway. Lizotte, who was a 10-year Missouri Department of Transportation veteran, was killed on the job in August 2001.

Memorial unveiled dedicated to the fallen highway workers in West Virginia

West Virginia — Wednesday morning was an important milestone for families of West Virginia Division of Highways workers who have been killed by vehicle accidents while on the job. A Fallen Highway Worker Memorial was unveiled at the Williamstown Welcome Center to honor the forty-nine workers who were taken so tragically.

State flags lowered to honor PennDOT foreman killed on duty

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Pennsylvania’s governor is taking steps to honor a state highway worker struck and killed while setting flares to warn drivers of an interstate crash. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday ordered the state flag to be flown at half-staff in the Capitol complex in Harrisburg and at all state facilities in Blair County to remember PennDOT highway foreman Robert Gensimore. The 45-year-old Gensimore was killed Saturday afternoon when a car struck him along Interstate 99.

Bridge dedication in Lawrence Twp. to honor PennDOT worker

CLEARFIELD, Pennsylvania — The official designation of a bridge in Lawrence Township to honor a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) employee who was killed while working will take place on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. Act 23 of 2022 designates a bridge carrying Pennsylvania Route 879 over the West Branch Susquehanna River, Lawrence Township, Clearfield County, as the Gerald “Jerry” Confer Memorial Bridge. Gerald Confer was employed by PennDOT and on Sept. 18, 1984, Confer, along with his coworker, sustained critical injuries when their PennDOT vehicle was struck in the rear by a truck at Exit 16 on Interstate 80, resulting in Confer’s death.

Kansas Highway Workers Memorial

Kansas Highway Workers Memorial: This memorial recognizing workers for their service was dedicated at the Paxico Safety Rest Area along I-70 in Wabaunsee County. The following Kansas Highway Commission, the Kansas Department of Transportation and the Kansas Turnpike Authority employees have been killed in work zones since August of 1950, if known their ages and time of service are included on this page.

Flag-lowering order honors Milwaukee Public Works employee killed on duty

Milwaukee, Wisconsin — Flags will be seen flying at half-staff from sunrise to sunset on Saturday. Governor Tony Evers made the announcement Friday. It’s to honor Milwaukee Public Works employee Bryan Rodriguez. Rodriguez died while on duty last Friday, when he was hit by a car.

Nebraska Department of Roads

Nebraska — This bronze memorial is located at the Blue River Interstate-80 Milford rest area west of Exit 382 for eastbound traffic. Milford is located approximately 15 miles west of the west edge of Lincoln. The memorial was dedicated on August 27, 2001, and honors the Department of Roads employees who lost their lives while serving the citizens of Nebraska. It was the first memorial dedicated to workers who have been killed while on the job.


*The 23 states that do not cover public employees are: Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia, Wisconsin. Note that Wisconsin and West Virginia have laws on the books that provide some protections to some public employees. They are not federally approved programs and their budgets, standards and enforcement are not overseen by federal OSHA.


3 thoughts on “When Are Public Employee Memorials a Hollow Gesture?”
  1. Thanks for this powerful piece, Jordan. Our local union of the IAFF routinely relied on Cal/OSHA regulations to spur the City of Salinas to pay attention to basic safety and health concerns. It didn’t require a visit by a Cal/OSHA compliance officer–we just raised the issues ourselves through our joint labor-management H&S committee and asked why the city continued to be out of compliance. An OSHA complaint gave us a reasonably powerful bargaining position, because the language was usually plainly obvious, as was the lack of compliance. Without OSHA coverage, we would have been completely ignored, along with the public sector workers in all those states you’ve listed.

  2. Thank you for an excellent essay on a very sad subject. I expect that a very large portion of the public workers killed would have preferred to go home alive instead of having a mile of road named after them. Your statistics on the greater risk of death to public employees in states without occupational safety and health programs are very compelling.

  3. Public employees work in public spaces — offices, vehicles, parks, etc. If they had OSHA coverage it would benefit the public who visit these places. I’m thinking of OSHA standards which cover fire safety, for example. This lack of coverage in the majority of states makes me so mad, I have to wonder “what would Mother Jones do?”

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