Early in the morning on Thanksgiving eve, just a few miles from my house in Arlington County, Virginia,  Mr. James Bea, 59, was killed on the job.   Mr. Bea and his county-employee co-worker were working at the site of a water main break.  They were removing a set of temporary lights that had been erected to allow others workers to proceed through the night with the sewer line repairs.  Mr. Bea, who had been a county employee for 24 years, was electrocuted and his co-worker suffered serious burns.  

Arlington County issued a news release (11/25/09) and a video story through its AVNetwork  called ““Power Line Tragedy.”   The video release features Mr. James Bea’s boss, Bob Griffin, the director of the Department of Environmental Services (DES), reminding us that public sector employees are often hidden from view, unrecognized for the work they do, and working in conditions that most people would find “deplorable.”   From the county’s video release, I’ve posted at the end of this post the text of director Bob Griffin’s remarks.  

Mr. James Bea’s death is being investigated officially by the Virginia OSH, and hopefully they will help provide the Bea family and his co-workers some answers.  His death gave me the chance to explain to my husband, Jim, that the death of a public sector employee in 26 other States would not result in any official investigation. 

“That’s a big gap…a big loophole, isn’t it?” he said.

Indeed it is.  But the “Protecting America’s Workers Act” (S. 1580 and H.R. 2067) would correct this unfairness and ensure that 9 million workers have OSH protections.  This huge OSH gap affects workers and their families in: AL, AR, CO, DC, DE, FL, GA, ID, IL,* KS, LA, MA, ME, MO, MS, MT, ND, NE, NH, OH, OK, PA, RI, SD, TX, WI,  and WV.

Several years ago, Casey Jones (whose husband Clyde worked for the City of Daytona Beach, Florida—not covered by OSHA) and the late Carolyn Merritt of the CSB tried to draw attention to the gap in H&S protection for state, county and local employees.   I’m counting on George Miller, Lynn Woolsey, Patty Murray, Tom Harkin and other Members of Congress to act on S. 1580 and H.R. 2067 early in 2010. 

In the meantime, I’ll listen again to the words of Arlington County DES director Bob Griffin on the death of long-term county employee James Bea, 59:

“He was the type of guy, like a lot of the folks that we have in  DES who are generally unrecognized for the work they do.  Working through the night, in conditions in which most people find deplorable.  Last night in the trench with water.  He ‘s the the type of person who was plowing snow, also the type of person you’d not find complaining about the work.”

“He loved his family, he loved his coworkers, he loved working for the county.  It’s an enormous loss, it’s an  absolute enormous loss for us.”

“When you’re saying ‘thank you’ on Thanksgiving, remember the folks who are providing the service that people don’t think about.  The folks that are providing the water, and making sure the sewage is taken away, and the roads are safe to be on.”

“If nothing else, it’s a poignant reminder of how dangerous the job really is, and sometimes that gets forgotten.”

[Excerpt from Arlington County, Virginia’s video news release]

*Note: On September 1, 2009, the Illinois Department of Labor received approval from federal OSHA to administer a State Plan for public sector workers.  That’s an estimated 725,000 state, county and local employees who will soon have OHS rights and protections.