Workers' Memorial Week 2013: Mourning the dead, fighting for the living

This week is Workers' Memorial Week, when we remember the thousands of men and women who die on the job each year and work to prevent future deaths by improving workplace health and safety. Workers' Memorial Day is recognized worldwide on April 28, and more than a dozen US communities are holding local Workers' Memorial Week events. In the US, nearly 5,000 workers are killed on the job each year and, as the AFL-CIO notes in its annual Death on the Job report, an estimated 50,000 die from occupational diseases.

This week begins in the shadow of a tragedy in Texas, where a massive fire and explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West killed at least 14 people. Among the casualties listed on the Waco Tribune's website are several firefighters:

  • Morris Bridges, 41. Fire sprinkler technician for Action Fire Pros. Member of West Volunteer Fire Department.
  • Perry Calvin, 37. Student at Hill College Fire Academy. Member of Mertens and Navarro Mills volunteer fire departments.
  • Jerry Chapman, 26. Worked as a server. Member of Abbott Volunteer Fire Department.
  • Cody Dragoo, 50. Foreman at West Fertilizer Co. Member of West Volunteer Fire Department.
  • Kenny Harris, 52. Dallas city fire captain.
  • Joey Pustejovsky. West City Secretary. Member of West Volunteer Fire Department.
  • Cyrus Reed. Worked at Waxahachie plant. Member of Abbott Volunteer Fire Department.
  • Robert Snokhous, 48. Central Texas Iron Works employee, West volunteer firefighter.
  • Doug Snokhous, 50. Central Texas Iron Works employee, West volunteer firefighter.

Manny Fernandez writes in the New York Times about the memorial service for ten firefighters and two men who are being recognized as firefighters for their work battling the blaze:

The department lost five of its 28 members, officials said. Several members were injured and taken to hospitals, including the chief, George Nors Sr., 67, who was released on Friday. The acting chief is his son, George Nors Jr., 34.

... The department had five engines and trucks; now, it has two. On Friday night, trucks and firefighters from Waxahachie and other towns were in the fire station, covering the day-to-day duties so that members of the West department could recuperate and grieve among themselves and their loved ones.

“They lost one-fifth of their organization,” Mr. Ondrasek said. “Many of the officers within the organization either died or are in the hospital. It all brings home how dangerous the job is that you don’t get paid to do. You’re serving your community because this is what you want to do and feel like you need to do. And you can pay with your life.”

First responders deserve our praise and gratitude for serving their communities in jobs that can endanger their lives. All too often, though, their deaths are preventable -- as are thousands of other on-the-job deaths.

During Workers' Memorial Week, people who've lost loved ones to workplace deaths are in our thoughts and, in many cases, in the media spotlight. Many brave members of group United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities have told their stories to reporters, lawmakers, and regulators in efforts to advocate for improved worker health and safety protections. This year, Danielle Dole told the (Tennessee) Cadillac News about her father, Sherman Holmes, who was killed in a logging incident while working at K&K Forest Products. Reporter Rick Charmoli wrote:

Danielle Dole struggles every day with the loss of her father.

On April Fool’s Day, Dole typically would get a call from her dad, Sherman Holmes, and he would tell her jokes.

Last Monday, there was no such call.

Every Christmas, the Tustin native would spend the holiday with both her parents even though they were divorced and had been for a number of years. The past two holiday seasons, a spot at the table was left unfilled.

This is part of the grief Dole deals with every day. While death is inevitable, Dole’s father didn’t die after a long sickness or from natural causes. He died from a work-related accident. He was 55.

Dole didn't get to say goodbye. She didn’t get the chance to introduce her father to his yet-to-be-born granddaughter. Her son Jackson, who was 2 when Holmes died on Feb. 1, 2011, will only have fleeting memories of his Papa Sherman.

... A few months after her father died, Dole and her sister received a flyer from the United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities. The non-profit organization is a support group made up of families who have been in the same situation and understand the emotions and questions people like Dole may have regarding the loss of their family member.

The group has helped make things easier, but the struggles still remain for Dole. It has made her stronger, however, knowing that she is not alone and others are dealing with the same emotions.

“It is like my extra family,” she said.

In addition to the the support, Dole said the group also advocates for the families who have lost loved ones by lobbying in states and in Washington, D.C., for the transformation of the work environment to safe and healthy conditions for all workers.

Danielle Dole has organized the June 1 Sherman L. Holmes 5K Run-Walk as part of her efforts to raise awareness of workplace safety while honoring her father's memory. She has also traveled to Washington, DC and joined other USMWF members in meeting with regulators and demonstrating in the front of the US Chamber of Commerce to advocate for stronger workplace health and safety protections (read more about their DC visit on page 17 of our report The Year in US Occupational Health & Safety).

Workers' Memorial Week of Action events are taking place in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) has compiled listings for these events as well as more info about Workers' Memorial Day, and their website features several Stories of Fallen Workers. National COSH will also be holding a Facebook Town Hall on Wednesday, April 24 (submit your questions now; a live Q&A will start at 1pm ET) and leading a Twitterstorm on Thursday April 25 (concentrated at 1pm, but going on throughout the day).

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