On April 28, organizations around the country commemorated workers who were injured or killed in the workplace.
Workers' Memorial Day is the annual recognition that workers continue to suffer injuries and illnesses while at work. Many are killed in incidents that could have been prevented by safety measures that are affordable and reasonable. In 2010, 75 workers in Arizona were killed on the job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly a third of those fatalities involved "assaults or violent acts," compared to a rate of 18 percent nationally.
Last year, Tucsonan Gabe Zimmerman, 30, an aide to then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, made that list of fatalities related to workplace violence, along with other public servants, including police officers, firefighters and Border Patrol agents.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that the number of deaths related to illnesses from exposure to chemicals or other health hazards at work is more than 10 times the official number of work-related fatalities. That would mean about 825 people in Arizona died of work-related illnesses in 2010—or more than two people per day.
Many Arizonans were needlessly killed on the job in 2011. Oscar Bejerano, 27, was crushed by a crane while working for RJM Investment Co. of Congress, Ariz., on May 24. Arizona OSHA investigated and cited the company for two serious violations. It initially fined the company $14,000, but settled for $3,000. Jose C. Espino Avila, 38, was killed after falling off of a ladder while working for Comfort World A/C and Heating of Scottsdale. The fatality resulted in a $1,500 fine, which was reduced to $1,000.
A case involving the death of Lawrence Daley, 54, is being appealed by his employer, Siemens Industry of Phoenix, after the company was initially fined $27,750. In addition to these woefully inadequate penalties, the OSHA process allows the hazards responsible for these deaths to remain uncorrected while a case is being appealed.
Legislators argue that safety laws and regulations kill jobs. This claim is unsubstantiated by research and data, but perpetuated by lobbyists such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Instead of making progress to protect workers, Congress has tried to whittle away at the protections that keep all Americans safe. Even now, two bills are pending in the U.S. House of Representatives that aim to weaken our vital system of safeguards: HR 4078, the Regulatory Freeze for Jobs Act, and HR 1281, the Restoring Economic Certainty Act. The wave of anti-regulation frenzy has delayed progress on standards for health hazards such as silica dust and combustible dust, and hampered efforts to prevent job-related illness and violence. Workers die from breathing silica dust on construction jobs and are killed by workplace explosions every year.
All citizens can be part of the solution. Become knowledgeable about worker safety through websites such as www.osha.gov, coshnetwork.org and USMWF.org. Know that all workers face hazards, whether it's falling from heights for construction workers, or a lack of drinking water and access to shade for agriculture workers. Urge your legislators to support stronger worker-safety programs. If you know a family affected by a serious workplace injury or death, reach out to them, and be compassionate.
Unsafe jobs kill workers and leave families and communities devastated. We must prevent these disasters by sending the strong message that employers must do everything possible to provide a workplace "free from recognized hazards," as stated in the OSHA Act of 1970.
Does a fine of $1,000 or $3,000 send a company that message?