Workers’ Memorial Day: Short Shrift on Safety Costs Lives in MA

Labor unions and workplace safety advocates are calling for more stringent worker safety protections in Massachusetts following the release of a report that documents the loss of 62 workers killed in the commonwealth in 2009.

“The findings are extremely disturbing,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health and the report’s co-author. “It’s not just the number, which is unacceptable. It’s also what’s behind the numbers – that so many of these men and women could have been with us today had their employer not given safety short shrift.”

“Sixty-two Massachusetts workers didn’t make it home this year due to a workplace fatality,” said Robert Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. “Many of those deaths could have been prevented through basic health and safety measures, and of those, many can be attributed to a willful and dangerous disregard for worker safety by employers. As we do every year on Workers’ Memorial Day, we must mourn the unnecessary loss of life through workplace accidents and rededicate ourselves toward preventing such tragedies in the future.”

The report released by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupation Safety and Health (MassCOSH), Dying for Work in Massachusetts: The Loss of Life and Limb in Massachusetts Workplaces, comes on the eve of Workers’ Memorial Day. Every year on April 28th, workers killed and injured on the job are remembered and the call for improving workplace safety is renewed. This year, Workers’ Memorial Day will be commemorated on the steps of the Massachusetts State House at noon.

In Massachusetts in 2009, the average fine assessed to an employer with OSHA violations resulting in the death of a worker was $13,306. Nine of the 14 penalized employers faced fines of under $10,000. The report also found that at OSHA's current rate of inspection, it will take a staggering 121 years for the agency to complete inspections of all workplaces under its jurisdiction.

The report gives examples of deaths that could have been prevented. On May 4, 2009, a fish processing worker, Joseph Teixeria, was killed at a New Bedford seafood processing plant after becoming caught in the moving parts of a large industrial ice-making machine. The ensuing OSHA investigation found that Northern Wind, the employer, had failed to establish steps and procedures to power down and lock out the ice machine’s power source before employees entered the machine. An additional 21 health and safety violations were found at the plant, resulting in a $42,000 citation.

The report also highlights deaths and injuries that occurred in the public sector, where workers are not covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act). Jeffrey Burgess, a 35-year-old city of Attleboro employee, was struck and killed by a minivan while helping repair a water main break. Burgess had walked into the street to close the water valve when the minivan hit him, pinning him underneath a public workers truck. An investigation by the Massachusetts Division of Occupational Safety found that none of the employees of the water department had received formal work zone training or were familiar with the standard developed by the Federal Highway Administration to ensure safety in work zones.

The report highlights several issues of growing concern:

  • Poor working conditions that plague immigrant workers in Massachusetts due to language barriers, lack of training and employer exploitation, coupled with fear of retaliation and deportation for speaking out about hazards that contribute to workplace deaths among immigrant workers. Far too often, temporary agencies fail to provide workers with even the name of their employer; making it impossible for workers to pursue workers’ compensation should they become injured.
  • Workplace violence continues to hit the retail industry hard, with five deaths occurring as a result of work-related homicide this year. Many employers are not aware, or negligent of, basic precautions that can reduce the threat of death or injury when a robbery or other violent incident occurs.
  • Recycling jobs, commonly associated with the “green jobs” movement, actually provide some of the dirtiest, lowest paid and most hazardous jobs. At the same time, employers have capitalized on the idea of “green jobs” in order to qualify for public subsidies. A chemical release at a New Bedford recycling plant that resulted in the hospitalization over 100 workers this past August put a spotlight on this issue.

The complete report can be viewed at http://www.massaflcio.org or http://www.masscosh.org.

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