Labor Day is a memorial day if your loved one went to work but never came home

Karen Lubanty recounts:

“He kissed me goodbye, told me he’d call me at work later. He kissed Jennifer goodbye. That was it, he never came home.”

Her husband, Walter Lubanty, was killed in October 2006 while working at a Tilcon NY Inc. plant in Wharton, NJ. He was crushed by 75 tons of steel. The company was assessed a $7,500 penalty by OSHA for three serious safety violations.

The young widow tells part of the story of how her life changed that day in a 5-minute video produced by the Machinists Union (IAM). The piece was filmed at a town hall meeting held in Virginia to discuss much-needed changes to our nation’s worker safety laws. It features a dozen other individuals who’ve lost loved ones from workplace hazards and employer neglect.

The toll of work-related deaths in the U.S. is tabulated each year by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the preliminary data for 2009 indicates 4,340 individuals died from traumatic on-the-job injuries like the one that killed Walter Lubanty. The data does not include deaths from work-related illnesses such as respiratory diseases caused by mineral dusts or other toxic exposures. Nor does it includes life-years lost from chronic exposure to physical, chemical, biological hazards and stress at work. You know what I’m talking about if you know somebody who’s worked construction, mining and other heavy labor jobs. His body is worn and torn and looks 15 years older than his actual years.

The IAM video touches the surface of the much larger problem of worker injuries — both physical and psychological. Mark Fernandez was working in New York with his brother Dwayne on a cell tower 120 feet off the ground. Dwayne’s safety equipment was defective, and it failed. Mark watched his brother fall, injured himself trying to save his younger sibling, and witnessed Dwayne’s 30-minute death experience. Thousands of serious injury incidents like Mark Fernandez’s occur every year in the U.S. and are not captured in any national surveillance system. The best we have is an estimate of injuries based on a voluntary survey of about 200,000 employers.

The Labor Department’s annual body count of worker deaths is too crude a measure of the true social impact of workplace safety and health hazards. The number of work-related deaths has been reduced substantially over the last few generations, but that’s no reason to think this social problem has been solved. As long as individuals are made ill, crippled, or harmed in other ways from preventable work-related causes, there’s more work to do. If your spouse or child went to work one day and was killed on the job, Labor Day is a memorial day.

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