In just the last several weeks, we’ve seen a series of horrific workplace explosions that have claimed a total of 52 workers’ lives: five at the Kleen Energy Systems plant explosion in Middletown, Connecticut; seven at the Tesoro Refinery explosion in Anacortes, Washington; 29 at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia; 11 on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, owned by Transocean Ltd and under contract to BP, in the Gulf of Mexico. The general public has probably become slightly more aware of the fact that going to work – especially in the energy industry – can be dangerous, but how long will that awareness last?
As President Obama suggested in his Workers Memorial Day proclamation, these large-scale tragedies garner attention, but far more workplace deaths happen one or two at a time and get little attention from the press or the public. He could also have pointed out that the horror and outrage often fade before policies and practices can be improved to make workplaces safer.
Workers Memorial Day (April 28th each year) offers an annual reminder that we must strengthen our systems for protecting worker health and safety – because workplaces are still killing, injuring, and causing disease in workers. The most powerful reminder of the urgency of this task is the grief of those who have lost loved ones to workplace disasters. Like last year, several of these family members gathered in front of the Department of Labor on the morning of Workers Memorial Day to bring a message to our public officials: Don’t let more workers lose their lives the same way our loved ones did.
Tammy Miser started the organization United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities after her brother Shawn Boone, 33, was killed at an aluminum dust explosion at Hayes Lemmerz in Huntington, Indiana. Ably assisted by The Pump Handle’s own Celeste Monforton, USMWF brought family members to Washington, DC from Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and West Virginia to put faces on the statistics of workplace deaths.
On Workers Memorial Day, family members were joined by other supporters of workplace health and safety, including OSHA and MSHA staff people and the heads of both those agencies. The group of more than 40 people was probably twice the size of last year’s gathering. Each participant held an enlarged photo of a worker who had been killed on the job, and we read off their names and details one by one. Then, we moved from a note of solemn remembrance to one of action, spurred by the words of Mother Jones: Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions committee and the House Committee on Education and Labor’s Subcommittee on Workforce Protections both held hearings for Workers Memorial Day, and both featured testimony from family members who had lost loved ones to workplace disasters and had criticisms about how OSHA handled the investigation and penalty processes.
Holly Shaw (testimony here) spoke before the Senate Committee about her husband Scott Shaw, 38, who drowned while working on a barge for Armco Construction of Philadelphia; the OSHA investigation found that the company had committed four serious violations, but the final penalty for those violations was just $4,000. Tonya Ford (testimony here) spoke to the House Subcommittee about her uncle Robert Fitch – or Uncle Bobby – who was killed at age 51 by an 80-foot fall from a manlift at the Archer Daniel Midland Plant in Lincoln, Nebraska; OSHA issued two citations to ADM that were classified as serious, but the citations and the monetary penalty attached to them were deleted in an informal settlement agreement.
Both Holly Shaw and Tonya Ford testified that they support the Protecting America’s Workers Act, which would address some of the problems they experienced when dealing with OSHA after their family members’ deaths. Celeste also testified at the House Subcommittee hearing (testimony here), explaining the many ways family members can add valuable input to fatality investigations and calling PAWA a step in the right direction.
Prior to the hearings, 24 family members met with Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis to tell their stories and explain what they think the Department of Labor should do to prevent other such tragedies.
It was clear that Members of Congress and Department of Labor officials were moved by the family members’ stories. Let’s hope they’re moved to act, so that next Worker Memorial Day we don’t have so many additional workers to mourn.