On Friday, April 26th members of the Massachusetts labor movement gathered in front of the State House to commemorate Workers Memorial Day. The event, hosted by the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health(MassCosh), echoed the words of labor leader and revolutionary Mother Jones: “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”
Sixty-nine names of workers who died on the job this year were read at the ceremony. Sixty-nine. That is the price, measured in flesh and blood, that our state paid to keep our economy running. MassCosh’s message is that the number of deaths is too high, and that many of these deaths are preventable with better health and safety regulation and enforcement.
Multiple speakers at the ceremony highlighted that this number does not include all those who have passed away from workplace-related diseases, which is estimated at 50,000 annually for the United States. The number also is not inclusive of those who have fallen victim to addiction in relation to workplace injuries, leading indirectly to deaths from overdose.
The event also gave voice to injured workers, who spoke about the difficulties of being injured on the job. The obstacles to which they bore witness were far beyond what we might first consider: the physical and emotional toll of the injury itself. These workers also found themselves going up against their employers to receive recognition of and compensation for their injuries, facing the shame of not being able to provide for their families or loved-ones overseas, and overcoming the difficulties of returning to work after recovery.
A handful of family members shared memories about the loved ones they had lost. Hearing about the vibrancy of the fallen workers’ lives made the tragedy of their untimely deaths, too often from preventable causes, all the more stark.
MA AFL-CIO president Steve Tolman concluded the ceremony with a condemnation of the failures of our regulatory system and a call to action in the struggle for safe workplace conditions. He highlighted some basic inadequacies about workplace safety enforcement. First, over the decades the workforce has grown tremendously, but funding for OSHA inspectors has been cut by over 10%. Second, Massachusetts has only 30 OSHA inspectors; at this staffing level, it would take 180 years to inspect all the worksites in this state. It is no wonder we lose so many workers every year.
Tolman did not only condemn the system, but called on those attending to come together to push important legislation pending in the legislature which would address some of these inadequacies.