On Eve of Worker Memorial Day, Safety Takes Center Stage

As the safety community gears up for Worker Memorial Day – which is April 28 – hearings on Capitol Hill and a recently released AFL-CIO report have helped put occupational safety and health policies and enforcement in the spotlight.

During the week prior to Worker Memorial Day, two Congressional hearings were held to investigate current job safety protections in the United States and to determine if OSHA is living up to its promise of doing everything possible to protect American's workers. The overall consensus of both legislators and labor organizations was that although workplace injury and illness rates and fatalities have declined, more can be done to bring those figures down even further.

In addition, Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., along with Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., introduced the “Protecting America's Workers Act,” which proposes to amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act to cover more workers, increase penalties, strengthen protections, enhance public accountability and clarify an employer’s duty to provide safety equipment.

(For more about the hearings, read "Kennedy, Murray, Woolsey Relaunch the Protecting America's Workers Act" and "OSHA Grilled on the Hill.")

Numbers Still Indicate Need for Better Worker Protection

Can more be done to protect workers? The numbers speak for themselves: In 2005, more than 5,700 workers were killed on the job, and 4.2 million private-sector workers suffered injuries, according to AFL-CIO's 2007 “Death on the Job” report. And although OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr. has emphasized that, since 2002, the injury and illness rate has decreased by more than 13 percent, industries such as construction, agriculture and food service always have been dangerous and expose workers to hazards each day.

According to Greg Tarpinian, executive director of Change to Win – a labor coalition of seven unions and 6 million workers – OSHA should use more of its regulatory power to issue stronger laws that would compel workplaces, big and small, to better protect workers.

“Current law provides too little incentive for employers to follow the rules, and offers too many excuses for not abiding by them – and a majority of workers agree,” Tarpinian said.

According to Tarpinian, a recent poll conducted by Change to Win revealed that eight out of 10 workers said they “believe corporations are too focused on short-term profits, treat their work force as disposable and have become so powerful that they disregard labor laws.”

OSHA Reiterates its Commitment to Safety

On the eve of Worker Memorial Day, OSHA reiterated that the agency is committed to “bringing every working man and woman home safe and healthy every day.”

“On Worker Memorial Day, we pay tribute to those who have died as a result of job-related hazards. No one should have to risk their life while trying to earn a living,” Foulke said in a statement. “Even one job-related fatality is one too many.”

Worker Memorial Day Recognized Around the World

Other countries around the globe are stepping up their efforts to bring attention to worker safety on April 28 – which, in many countries outside the United States, is known as World Day for Safety and Health at Work. According to statistics compiled by the International Labor Organization, 70 million accidents at work happen every year, of which 355,000 are fatal.

In Canada, April 28 is recognized as the Day of Mourning; the day first was declared by the Canadian Labor Congress in 1984. This year the Congress is renewing its call for the Canadian governments to step up enforcement of federal, provincial and territorial health and safety laws. Last year, a report by the Center for the Study of Living Standards documented an 18 percent increase in workplace fatalities in 2005 over the previous year. (For more, read "Work-Related Deaths on the Rise in Canada.")

Ontario Minister of Labor Steve Peters said he was marking the Day of Mourning by handing out
Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) Day of Mourning ribbons to his colleagues, and leading a moment of silence. Ontario's WSIB plays a key role in the province's occupational health and safety system.

"Every workplace injury and every workplace death can be prevented," Peters said. "We must continue to work together to make our workplaces healthier and safer."

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