Workers’ Memorial Day: Honoring Those Who Left Us Too Soon

by Seth Harris on April 29, 2013 · 0 comments

Today we remember those who have given their lives while doing their jobs; those who left for work one day and then left this Earth before they could make it back home.

We remember unspeakable disasters going back more than a century, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. We remember the miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine. We remember those who were killed in the plant explosion in West, Texas, less than two weeks ago. And we also remember the victims in Bangladesh, as this is International Workers’ Memorial Day.

We remember those who perished more anonymously in incidents that are no less tragic for having garnered fewer headlines, including Danielle Dole’s father and Dr. Bridgette Hester’s husband. Danielle and Bridgette shared their personal stories today at the Labor Department as part of our ceremony to mark Workers’ Memorial Day. 

Danielle Dole and Bridgette Hester at Workers' Memorial Day event

During the department's Workers' Memorial Day ceremony on April 29, 2013, Danielle Dole (left) and Dr. Bridgette Hester shared stories of loved ones killed on the job.

At the same time, we should take this opportunity to recognize the accidents that didn’t happen and the deaths we were able to prevent through the work of the Labor Department.

I thank Assistant Secretaries David Michaels and Joe Main, and all of the exemplary public servants in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and the Wage and Hour Division (which guards against unsafe child labor). They work hard every single day, despite limited resources, doing everything in their power to ensure that fatal workplace accidents are as rare as possible.

While we celebrate 100 years of the Labor Department, it’s important to remember that OSHA and MSHA have been around for less than half that time. In my lifetime, there was no federal protection for workers who faced deadly hazards on the job. In many cases, workplace injuries, sickness and fatalities were considered little more than collateral damage − just the cost of doing business. 

If you feared that the scaffolding at your construction site might collapse or that your shortness of breath was the result of hazardous chemicals at the plant … well, you didn’t have much recourse. If you thought your employer was cutting corners or being negligent, you didn’t dare speak up, because there was no such thing as protection for whistleblowers.

But because of heightened awareness, because of federal inspections and regulations, because of relentless advocacy on the part of so many, we’ve seen a sea change. A staggering 14,000 workers were killed on the job during 1970, the year before OSHA was officially formed. That number has fallen by two-thirds to 4,693 − the Bureau of Labor Statistics just released the final 2011 figure last week − even as the size of the workforce has doubled.

But we cannot and must not say our work is done. That’s 4,693 workplace fatalities too many. It’s 13 workplace deaths a day too many. That’s more American lives lost than on some of the most violent days of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pictures outside the Labor Department auditorium of workers who were killed on the job.

As the nation continues to bounce back from the Great Recession, we can’t succumb to the tired, old false choice between job growth and job safety. We know – and responsible employers know − that these two goals are not in tension, that workplace safety and health measures are a sound business investment and good for our economy.

We can and we must save more lives – with even stronger enforcement, even better training and outreach. We must use all our tools to protect every worker – whether they started yesterday or 30 years ago, whether English is their first language or not, whether they’re full-time employees or temporary or contingent workers.

This will take a robust, appropriately resourced OSHA, MSHA, and Wage and Hour Division. But preventing workplace fatalities is not a government responsibility alone. In fact, the first duty lies with employers. The law requires that employers keep their workplaces as safe and healthy as possible. All employers must accept and fully comply with this legal and moral obligation.

As the posters hanging in our elevators say: “No worker should sacrifice their life for their livelihood.” Today we remember those who have nevertheless made that terrible sacrifice – the husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters taken from their families so prematurely and unnecessarily.

Even as we reflect back on their lives, let’s also look forward, inspired by their memory to rededicate ourselves to our worker safety mission. Let’s honor them not just with a solemn ceremony one day out of the year, but with renewed vigilance, diligence and determination every single day of the year.

Seth Harris is the acting secretary of labor.

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