Gary Rice was killed on a hot summer day in Argentine, Kansas; July 1975. The forklift he was driving, a narrow-based model made for small tool sheds with cement floors, was not able to safely traverse the potholed and railroad tracks-lined dirt terrain of the steel fabrication plant where he worked. It turned over and killed him. By some lights the incident was simply an unavoidable accident. By my understanding, Gary Rice was murdered. When OSHA came to inspect the factory—where I worked for two years as a fitter helping to turn out steel girders for highway bridges, 60-foot columns for shopping malls, and the trusses used to erect a downtown convention center—the federal work safety agency found over a hundred violations. Today, that place is a vacant lot with little prospects. That July, thirty-six years ago, it was like a coal mine ready to explode.
Gary Rice was a friend of mine. And I write these words honoring Workers Memorial Day, April 28, in his memory. I also remember others I knew that were injured on job sites: the co-worker who lost a finger tip; the young man who lost half his hand to a press-brake while cutting ½ inch steel plate; and the man poisoned by lead paint shot into his finger, among others.
The numbers of dead and injured read like the statistics from a war-zone. In 2008, “5,214 workers were killed on the job,” according to the 2010 edition of the AFL-CIO’s Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect. “An estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases,” and “4.6 million work-related injuries were reported.” Many more injuries went un-reported, simply because without union protection a job injury when reported too often turns into a job lost. And many workers remember that encounter with the company doctor, when hot welding slag in the eye was treated with an eye patch and a pat on the back as he sent you back to work one-eyed in a shop where two eyes were not enough to dodge the dangers.
This year is the hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. We remember the 146 mostly young immigrant women who died; and we work so that immigrants today do not have to work under unsafe and unsanitary conditions. We also remember the 29 miners who died last year in the explosion in that coal pit in West Virginia. And we do not forget that this mine, owned by Massey Energy company, was cited for more than 3,000 safety violations since 1995. We remember that the ruination of the Gulf Coast environment looming in the near future began with the deaths of eleven workers on the drilling platform as it exploded.
These events remind us that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration operates on a budgetary shoe string, without the personnel necessary to do its job. At the current staff levels, it would take 137 years for an OSHA inspector to get to every workplace under its jurisdiction, according to the 2010 edition of Death on the Job. (Take a look at this helpful and informative report at http://www.aflcio.org/issues/safety/memorial/doj_2010.cfm; it contains a state by state analysis as well.)
The importance of OSHA should be beyond doubt, and its budget and enforcement powers need to be increased rather than cut. At the same time, without unions to protect workers who report unsafe conditions from retaliation, OSHA’s role is much diminished. The budget cutting in congress and the attacks on trade unions in state capitols today, are attacks on the safety of the workplaces. They will undoubtedly result in more death and injuries. And it brings to mind a cardinal rule that we should keep forefront in our minds on this April 28 as we commemorate Workers Memorial Day: Don’t mourn, organize!
See also: Memorial sites by state