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Op-Ed; We must do more to prevent workplace deaths

Kris LaGrange's picture
Apr 28, 2010

As this month's tragic mine disaster in West Virginia proves, workplace fatalities are not a thing of the past. And they happen much closer to home, too.

Now and then we Long Islanders learn of horrific stories of workers who died in accidents on the job. Recently, we've lost 17-year-old Amiri Zeqiri, who fell into a cesspool behind a Dunkin' Donuts; Charles Donohue, who was crushed by a dump truck in a Roslyn Heights auto repair shop; and transit worker James Knell, who was electrocuted by the third rail.

In addition to grieving the loss of a loved one, families must grapple with the thought that the death could have been avoided and, in some cases, that employers' neglect should have been identified and corrected.

Forty years ago this week, Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Yesterday, on Workers Memorial Day, Long Island unions held an annual memorial service to pay homage to local workers who died on the job. A candlelight memorial service doesn't heal families' pain, but it does raise awareness about this very real and modern issue, which affects everyone who works for a living.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 201 worker deaths in New York and New Jersey, combined, in 2008. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated six fatalities on Long Island in 2009. Nationally, nearly 50 Americans are injured every minute of each workweek, and 17 American workers die each day. With 6 million workplace injuries and 50,000 job-site deaths annually, we have to ask ourselves if we are doing enough to prevent workplace deaths.

With a decline in union membership, since the 1950s only 13 percent of the American workforce now has legally binding safety procedures enforced at the workplace. Here in New York, only 25 percent of workers are unionized. Unions helped pass OSHA in 1970, but the underfunded federal agency leads us to ask if there is enough government oversight to protect the entire American workforce.

Recently, the New York City building trades got behind banning smoking on job sites. The electrical workers passed stronger rubber glove legislation in Albany. And the Long Island Occupational and Environmental Health Clinic is pushing local employers to re-examine their workplaces to prevent injury or death.

This rebirth of on-the-job safety is funded by worker advocacy groups, but unions don't exist in every industry. Fortunately, stronger safety laws are being fought for to protect all workers, regardless of their union status.

With the Obama administration, organized labor is optimistic that the Protecting America's Workers Act will pass. This law would expand OSHA to more industries and increase civil penalties for violations, making some violations a felony. It would require correcting job-site safety hazards during an investigation after a death or injury, and enhance whistle-blower protections. And it would allow victims' families the right to participate in investigations on their lost loved one's behalf.

These additions to the four-decade-old OSHA law would put us in the right direction. But workers still need to be alert on the job. All workers - whether white or blue collar, union or nonunion - should take a look around their workplaces and ask if they are safe.

A quick call to your elected representatives in Washington to urge support for strengthening workplace safety legislation would put us all in the fast lane to prevent workplace deaths. Because no family's final memory should be of a father or mother, husband or wife, or son or daughter, who left for work and never returned.

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