UPDATE: Event photos are here

Early this morning, a few dozen of us gathered in front of the Department of Labor headquarters to observe Workers Memorial Day by remembering those who were injured or killed on the job and by calling for changes that will protect others from the same fate. What made this event particularly powerful was the presence of family members who had lost someone – a husband, a son, an uncle, a nephew – to a workplace fatality. They came from Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada and New Jersey to remind government officials that the terrible toll of unsafe workplaces is more than just statistics. Each preventable workplace death leaves family members who not only grieve for their loss, but want to know how the dangerous conditions that lead to their loved one’s death could be allowed to persist.

They have questions like these: Why didn’t the factory clean up the aluminum dust in the plant, even after combustible dust explosions rocked several other facilities? How could an employer send a worker into a confined space knowing he lacked the proper training and equipment? Why has OSHA spent 10 years working on a crane rule that could have saved my son’s life had it been in place earlier this year?

They may not get answers to their questions, but the family members who came to DC for Workers Memorial Day are hoping that they can help prevent more workplace deaths. Jordan Barab, the Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary for OSHA, came down to the event to thank the family members for reminding the agency about the human toll of unsafe workplaces and for advocating reform.

Those of us gathered held enlarged photos of 28 workers who died from workplace injuries and illnesses, and read their names and ages aloud. (These photos and others can be seen at the United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities site.)

The most moving moments came when the family members spoke about their loved ones, both about how they died and how they will be missed. One young man was killed two month’s before his daughter’s birth, another shortly after getting engaged. All are still missed and mourned, and will never be forgotten. They are:

  • Shawn D. Boone, 33, was killed at an aluminum dust explosion at Hayes Lemmerz in Huntington, Indiana. Represented by his sister, Tammy Miser, and his mother, Hope Mock.
  • Robert Fitch, 52, was killed while working on a manlift at ADM in Lincoln, Nebraska. Represented by his niece, Tonya Ford.
  • Jeremy Foster, 19, was killed at Deltic Timber plant when caught in auger. Represented by his stepmother, Becky Foster.
  • Travis Wayne Koehler, 26, was killed at the Orleans Hotel Casino/Boyd Gaming in Las Vegas. Represented by his mother, Debi Koehler-Fergen.
  • Steven Michael Lillicrap, 21, was killed while disassembling a 100-ton crane while an apprentice Operating Engineer for a construction company in St. Louis. Represented by his mother, Diane Lillicrap, and uncle, Rick Power.
  • Juan Pablo Morillo, 30, was killed in an industrial explosion at work. Represented by his wife, Wanda Morillo.

After this event, we made our way to the House and Senate office buildings. Becky Foster, stepmother of Jeremy Foster, testified at the House Committee on Education and Labor hearing, “Are OSHA’s Penalties Adequate to Deter Health and Safety Violations?“, and Tammy Miser, sister of Shawn Boone, testified at the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety hearing “Introducing Meaningful Incentives for Safe Workplaces and Meaningful Roles for Victims and Their Families.” Celeste Monforton also testified at the Senate Subcommittee hearing, and you can read her testimony here. Behind Celeste and Tammy in the hearing room, family members of Robert Fitch, Shawn Boone, Steven Lillicrap, and Travis Koehler sat holding their photos – a vivid reminder to the Senators of why the issues being discussed at the hearing are so important, and why prompt action is needed.

Today, the AFL-CIO released its latest Death on the Job report, which gives a tally of 5,657 workers killed and more than 4 million hurt or made ill in 2007. The family members who gathered in DC today helped put faces on the statistics, and remind us just how much we are losing when we allow unsafe working conditions to persist.

Tammy and Celeste deserve a great deal of credit for arranging for these family members to be here today, and a grant from the Public Welfare Foundation funded their travel. (Full disclosure: the Public Welfare Foundation also funds one of our projects here at the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy.) But, most of all, we are grateful to the family members for coming here and sharing their stories. I know it must be difficult for all of them to speak about the pain of losing their loved ones, and it must have been particularly hard for Diane Lillicrap, who lost her son Steven just 12 weeks ago. Their strength in turning their grief into a fight for safer workplaces is an inspiration to us all.