Today is Workers’ Memorial Day, when we remember the victims of workplace deaths, injuries, and illnesses. According to the International Labor Organization, 2.2 million people die from work-related accidents and diseases every year, and another 430 million suffer from work-related illnesses or nonfatal accidents. These are preventable deaths, as the ILO Director-General Juan Somavia emphasizes:
Millions of work related accidents, injury and disease annually take their toll on human lives, businesses, the economy and the environment. We know that by assessing risks and hazards, combating them at source and promoting a culture of prevention we can significantly reduce workplace illness and injuries.
In the U.S., an estimated 49,000 deaths each year are attributed to work-related disease; in 2006, 5,840 workers died from injuries sustained on the job. Workers have successfully fought for many improvements since the days of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire; in fact, the CDC has recognized “Safer workplaces” as one of the ten great public health achievements of the 20th century. But workers are still losing their lives in workplaces here and around the world, and the ILO reports that work-related deaths are on the rise. On Saturday, a massive fire in a Casablanca mattress factory killed 55 workers. Accounts bring the Triangle disaster to mind: inflammable fabrics, blocked exit doors, and women sewing on an upper floor trapped by the blaze.
Yesterday, Celeste pointed us to Ken Ward’s excellent article on the Willow Island disaster that took 30 construction workers’ lives, and suggested that we thank Ken Ward and his Charleston Gazette editors for their consistently top-notch coverage of worker health and safety issues. On that note, I’d like to link to some of the excellent special reports on workplace hazards that have been published over the past year:
- Alexandra Berzon, Las Vegas Sun: On the booming Las Vegas Strip, construction jobs are rushed, and nine construction workers have died in the past 16 months.
- Ames Alexander, Kerry Hall, Franco Ordoñez, Peter St. Onge, Charlotte Observer: At North Carolina poultry plants, carpal tunnel and other debilitating injuries are common, but appropriate medial care and compensation are hard to come by.
- Loretta Tofani, Salt Lake Tribune: Hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers are exposed to deadly chemicals and dangerous machines as they labor in factories turning out products for the U.S. market.
- Laura Unger and Ralph Dunlop, Louisville Courier-Journal: Though the 1969 Coal Act was supposed to prevent coal miners from developing black lung disease, a new generation of mineworkers has been stricken with the deadly illness.
These in-depth reports are definitely worth a read, or a re-read. And I also recommend that everyone read the latest Weekly Toll from Tammy of United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities. Tammy combs through U.S. news reports of workplace deaths and compiles short writeups of the workplace deaths that could too easily be overlooked, reminding us of the individual lives that have been cut short and the many families left grieving. Bookmark her site so you can read it regularly, and be reminded how much we still need to do to make workplaces safe. Tammy has also started a petition urging OSHA to issue a general industry standard for preventing combustible dust explosions, like the one that killed 12 workers earlier this year at the Imperial Sugar facility in Georgia.
Today is a day for remembering those lost in workplace disasters, and also for renewing our determination to improve working conditions here and around the globe. We have a long way to go to make all workplaces healthy and safe.