Workers Memorial Day

On March 26, 2024 we woke to some grim news.  A cargo ship had hit the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, causing the gigantic bridge to collapse in seconds.

We watched video footage of the collapse with shock, awe, and horror.  And then we learned that eight construction workers were on that bridge, filling potholes in the middle of the night. Backbreaking work at any hour.  Upon the collision, they plummeted into the Petapsco River below. Two were rescued; six died.  To date, 4 bodies have been recovered.

This tragic event galvanized national attention on worker safety and health. Funds and initiatives were quickly established to help the victims’ families (here, here).  President Biden launched a whole-of-government effort to provide immediate response, reopen the port, rebuild the bridge, and support the people of Baltimore. The bridge collapse focused attention on the dangerous working conditions of immigrant workers (here, here, here, here), and there are calls for immigrant worker protections (here, here). The federal government has just launched a criminal investigation into the bridge collapse (here, here, here).

But although the bridge workers galvanized the country’s attention, their deaths were nothing new or rare. Let’s not forget the 6 highway workers people killed on the Baltimore Beltway in March of 2023.  Three more highway construction workers were killed on a Pennsylvania highway last week and almost every week a highway construction worker is killed on the job.

As heart-wrenching as these tragedies are, it is important to remember that thousands of other workers lost their lives this past year – around 100 every week. Most you never hear about. They generally die one at a time from work-related injuries and illnesses — sometimes noted in the local newspaper, but usually only remembered by their family, friends and co-workers.

And that’s what Worker Memorial Day is all about. On April 28 each year, people in the U.S. and around the world pause to recognize, remember, and honor those workers who lost their lives and to renew their commitment to fight for the living.

The Toll on Working People and Their Families

Here’s what the latest data tell us.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, a worker died every 96 minutes from a work-related injury in 2022. For a total of 5,486 fatalities in 2022 – up 5.7 percent from 2021.  That’s about 15 workers every day.  In the United States!

The numbers are appalling enough. Add to that horror the workers’ families and friends must experience when learning of their loved one’s last moments – buried alive in a trench, falling from a roof, scaffold, or down an elevator shaft, run over by a vehicle, mangled in a machine, hit with a falling object, murdered by a depressed or angry patient, customer, client, co-worker, or in the line of duty. Or dying due to exposure to temperature extremes, like 51 workers did 2022. Workers in transportation and material moving and in construction and extraction occupations experienced the highest number of fatalities, with 1,620 and 1,056 respectively in 2022.

You can read the Weekly Toll in Confined Space to get the gruesome details of how workers die on the job every week.

And those figures don’t include the almost 100,000 workers who die every year from work-related disease, often from exposures to infectious diseases or toxic materials like asbestos or silica many years or decades before. Most of these deaths go unreported.  (here, here, here, here)

The data on non-fatal injuries and illnesses should also blow our collective minds.  Private industry employers reported 2.8 million injury and illness cases in 2022, up 7.5% from 2021.  Injuries increased 4.5 percent and illnesses were up 26.1% — the latter driven by a 35.4% increase in respiratory illnesses.

Over the 2-year 2021-2022 period, 2.2 million cases involved days away from work, with a median of 10 days.  For health care practitioners and technical occupations, most cases involving days away from work were the result of exposure to harmful substances or environments – a category that includes cases of COVID-19.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Let’s start with the best news:  Occupational injuries, illnesses and deaths are preventable; they don’t need to happen. And the good news?  Resources abound.

We have laws, standards, regulations, guidelines, and best practices to foster prevention, not to mention just plain caring and common sense.  We have unions and workers who organize and fight for safe working conditions, better wages, and benefits.  We have advocacy groups, non-governmental organizations, think tanks, labor-friendly reporters, and academic centers that watchdog, testify, speak out, study, write, and engage in the public policy process. We have government agencies with workplace safety and health mandates.

We have some new worker safety initiatives and rules on the books that address workers’ rights as well as worker safety and health.  For example:

  • Just this past week (April 16), the Mine Safety and Health Administration issued a final rule on respirable crystalline silica to protect coal and metal and non-metal miners from deadly dust disease (here, here).
  • Last month OSHA issued a regulation clarifying the right of employees to choose their own representatives to accompany OSHA inspectors even when the workers do not work in a union facility.
  • Last month (March 24) the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a final rule to prohibit ongoing uses of chrysotile asbestos, the only known form of asbestos currently used in or imported to the United States.
  • Also in last month (March 1) the EPA promulgated the “Safer Communities by Chemical Accident Prevention Rule”, its most protective safety provisions for chemical facilities in history, requiring stronger measures for prevention, preparedness, and public transparency.
  • And just last week, OSHA posted on its website details of 860,000 worker injuries and illnesses occurring in 2023 in establishments with more than 100 workers. This new data not only present important information to workers and employers interested in improving their health and safety performance, but they are a treasure trove for researchers interested in the causation and prevention of workplace injuries.

And we have a president who is a visible and vocal supporter of unions and working people. Biden’s OSHA has significantly ramped up enforcement and higher penalties against employers who endanger and kill workers. According to the Strategic Organizing Center’s Eric Frumin, OSHA has shown an increased willingness to take on billion dollar corporations like Amazon and Dollar General. The number of OSHA high penalty cases climbed in 2023, and there were a hundred and forty-four “significant” citations, which carry fines of a hundred and eighty thousand dollars or more. That’s more than the total number of such penalties issued during Trump’s first three years in office.

Biden is the also the first sitting president to visit a picket line where he delivered a clear message to striking autoworkers. My favorite lines: “Wall Street didn’t build the country. The middle class built the country, and unions built the middle class. And that’s a fact. So, let’s keep going. You deserve what you’ve earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now.”

And just last week, the president congratulated Volkswagen workers for their recent organizing victory in Tennessee. The amazing UAW organizing victory shows that American workers are increasingly aware that unionized workers have higher salaries and significantly better benefits than non-unionized workers.

[For more, see here for 8 ways the Biden Administration has fought for working people by strengthening unions.

The Bad – It’s All Pretty Ugly

Let’s start with the worst news. Many of our nation’s workers are killed, maimed, or sickened on the job every single day. Their suffering is not captured in the data. In the words of Irving Selikoff, “Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped away.”

There are many problems and issues that need our attention, advocacy, and action.  For example:

  • Our health and safety agencies – OSHA, MSHA, EPA, NIOSH, and the NLRB are terribly underfunded and understaffed.
  • Penalties for fatalities and serious violation are far too low – essentially a slap on the wrist for medium and large businesses. Criminal prosecutions are difficult and rare. Let’s increase penalties and make it easier to pursue criminal prosecutions.
  • Regulatory action is lacking for heat, infectious disease, workplace violence, chemical plant safety and toxic chemicals.
  • Millions of state and local public sector workers lack OSHA protection. Let’s pressure Congress to pass legislation that would expand OSHA coverage to public workers in the 23 states without it.
  • Latino and immigrant workers are disproportionately injured and killed on the job.
  • Child labor protections are under attack (see here, here, here, here, here)
  • Congress has members with an anti-regulatory agenda.
  • Republican governors and legislatures are battling against worker safety initiatives, especially those addressing heat, condemning workers to preventable illness and death.

Fight for the Living

While we mourn and honor those who have lost their lives or become sick or disabled because of their work, let’s be motivated and buoyed by the call to fight for the living – our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, and colleagues who are the bedrock of our lives, our families, our communities – and, oh yeah – our economy.

Let’s come together, join forces, and focus our advocacy efforts on the bullets above.  Call your local, state, and federal representatives. Despite the efforts of anti-worker Governors like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, states and localities across the country are attempting to fill the gaps that OSHA leaves.

In this week leading up to Worker Memorial Day, let’s flood our elected leaders’ phones.  And think about writing a Worker Memorial Day op-ed for your local paper. Share it with your family and friends, even if it doesn’t get published.

And join friends, family and co-workers to commemorate Workers Memorial Day this week (April 28 this year is on a Sunday, so local ceremonies will be scattered throughout the week.)

There are many resources you can go to for Workers Memorial Day resources and events.

  • The AFL-CIO has a website with a toolkit containing data, posters, sample letters to the editor and a list of Workers Memorial Day events around the country.
  • OSHA has several days of educational and memorial activities, both in person and on-line, which you can access here.
  • For international activities and creative artwork, go to the April 28 website, the work Hazards magazine and the International Trade Union Confederation.

I guess my bottom line thought for this year’s Worker Memorial Day post is this: VOTE, VOTE, VOTE in the 2024 elections to ensure that we have a president, administration, and congressional representatives who put the lives and livelihoods of our working men and women first.  Workers’ lives depend on it.






One thought on “Mourning and Fighting: Workers Memorial Day 2024”
  1. […] We watched video footage of the collapse with shock, awe, and horror.  And then we learned that eight construction workers were on that bridge, filling potholes in the middle of the night. Backbreaking work at any hour.  Upon the collision, they plummeted into the Petapsco River below. Two were rescued; six died.  To date, 4 bodies have been recovered. Read more at Confined Space […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Confined Space

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading