Workers’ Memorial Day: “Mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living”

Going to work can be dangerous.

More than 4,500 workers in the US died on the job in 2013, the latest year for which data is available.

According to the Center for Disease Control. another 3 million workers in private industry were injured or sickened on the job as were more than 740,000 state and local government workers.

Of those injured on the job, 2.8 million workers were treated in emergency rooms and 140,000 required hospitalization.

On April 28, Workers’ Memorial Day events will be held all over the US to commemorate those who died and to demonstrate for improved health and safety on the job.

“On this Workers’ Memorial Day, we need to join hands to seek stronger safety and health protections and better standards and enforcement,” said James Hoffa, general president of the Teamsters. “To quote Mother Jones, a small woman but a giant in the American labor movement, ‘Mourn for the dead and fight like hell for the living’.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics on April 22 released its revised Census on Fatal Occupational Injuries.

According to the revised data, 4,585 workers were killed on the job in 2013, slightly below the 4,628 killed on the job in 2012.

But while overall worker deaths remained about the same, there was an alarmingly high incidence of on-the-job deaths of Latino workers. There were 817 deaths of Latino workers in 2013, up by 9 percent from the previous year.

For all other racial and ethnic categories, the number of on-the-job deaths declined slightly.

Among Latinos killed on the job in 2013, 66 percent were immigrant workers.

The industry with the most deaths was construction; 828 construction workers died on the job in 2013. Latinos in 2013 were 25.5 percent of the construction workforce and 29 percent of those who died on the job.

Juan Carlos Reyes of Brownsville, Texas was one of those Latino workers killed on the job, and it was no accident.

Reyes was working on the fourth floor of building that was to become a Marriott hotel in Harlingen, Texas. His employer was a non-union electrical contractor. The platform on which he was standing became unstable, and he fell to his death..

OSHA conducted an investigation and issued five citations for safety violations, including one that OSHA described as willful.

One of the safety violations cited by OSHA was for improperly constructed scaffolding.

Reyes worked in the state that had the most on the job fatalities of any other state–Texas.

In 2013, Texas recorded 508 worker fatalities, down a bit from 2012 when 536 Texas workers died.

Worker deaths in Texas are well above those of other states with comparable populations.

California had 396 worker fatalities, 28 percent fewer than Texas; New York had 178, about 180 percent fewer than Texas.

Of the 508 workers killed in Texas, 192, or 38 percent, were Latinos.

Two Workers’ Memorial Day events in Texas organized by the Workers Defense Project (WDP), will honor the Texas workers who died on the job and urge state and local leaders to take action to make work in Texas safer.

WDP helps low-income workers, especially immigrant workers from Latin America, organize and fight for job safety, fair treatment, good wages, and respect on the job.

One of the events will be held in Austin where state lawmakers are in session. After a media conference that begins at 8:00 A.M. at the Capitol, those participating in the event will meet for a short training session then fan out to urge lawmakers to pass legislation to make work safer and to protect workers from other abuses such as wage theft.

In Dallas, participants will meet at City Hall then lobby City Council members for a city ordinance requiring that workers receive at least a 10-minute rest break for at least every four hours of work.

“Sadly, Texas remains the deadliest state to work construction in the country,” reads a statement on a WDP Facebook page announcing the Austin event. “But this legislative session, Workers Defense Project is fighting to win change to better protect workers. This Workers’ Memorial Day, WDP will honor the workers who have died building our state and urge our elected officials to listen to construction workers and pass life saving laws. Join us for a day of action including a press conference, legislative visits and an exhibit.”

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Race to the bottom making work less safe

The race to the bottom turned to tragedy last week when an eight-story building housing garment factories near Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed and killed hundreds of workers. The deadly collapse occurred on the week prior to April 28, Workers Memorial Day, the day that workers around the world commemorate comrades killed on the job.

From the garment factories of Bangladesh to the coalfields of West Virginia working has become a lot more dangerous. In the US 4,600 workers died on the job in 2011. The death toll from the factory collapse in Bangladesh now stands at nearly 400.

In addition to on-the-job deaths, workers are suffering from the effects of toxic chemicals and other deadly material where they work. According to the New York Times, 40,000 US workers a year die prematurely from exposure to toxins and 200,000 workers a year are incapacitated.

The deteriorating state of work safety can be largely attributed to what has become a primary imperative of late-stage capitalism–drive down labor costs as low as possible, and when you’ve reached the bottom, drive them down some more.

That certainly is the case in Bangladesh, the world’s third largest exporter of manufactured garment goods, where the average monthly wage of a garment worker is $43 a month, the lowest in the world. Not satisfied with paying the world’s lowest wages, owners of the garment factories seek to lower the labor costs even further by spending as little as possible on worker health and safety, making those factories some of the most dangerous places in the world to work.

Since 2005, 700 workers have been killed in garment factory fires, the worst took place last November when 112 died at a fire in a factory owned by Tazreen Design, which made clothes for Walmart and other Western retailers.

The race to the bottom isn’t unique to Bangladesh. You can see it at work in the coalfields of West Virginia. In April 2010, 29 miners at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia died in a preventable methane gas explosion. Between that explosion and the end of 2012, 24 more miners died on the job. So far in 2013, nine miners have died, including five in West Virginia.

Two independent reports lay the blame for the Upper Big Branch explosion on Massey Energy management, which wilfully violated safety laws.

According to an indictment of a Massey executive by the US Justice Department, Massey routinely violated safety laws “in part because of the belief that consistently following those laws would decrease coal production.”

In other words, Massey executives decided that it would cost too much in lost production and lost profit to provide a safe work place.

Driving down labor costs has made work less safe in other ways. More and more of our most dangerous jobs are being done by temporary workers, whose pay is low and who are given little training or information about how to deal with hazards on the job.

One of those temporary workers was Lawrence Daquan “Day” Davis. Davis, a 21-year old African-American worker, was killed on his first day on the job at Bacardi Bottling in Jacksonville, Florida.

According to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “Davis was cleaning glass from under the hoist of a palletizing machine when an employee restarted the palletizer. Bacardi Bottling had failed to train temporary employees on utilizing locks and tags to prevent the accidental start-up of machines and to ensure its own employees
utilized procedures to lock or tag out machines.”

“We are seeing untrained workers – many of them temporary workers – killed very soon after starting a new job. This must stop,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels.

Minority workers, like Day Davis, are more likely to be the victims of the lack of safety on the job and that’s especially true for immigrant workers. “Immigrant workers toil away in some of the most dangerous jobs in the most dangerous industries in attempts to live a better life in the U.S., and unfortunately, a disproportionate number of immigrant workers perish on the job,” said Jessica E. Martinez, assistant director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

Deteriorating health and safety on the job isn’t an accident. It’s the result of a conscious cost calculation, and workers like Day Davis and his counterparts in the West Virginia coalfields and garment factories of Bangladesh are paying the price.