Guest Commentary

Americans need to mourn the dead workers and fight for the living

On April 28, Tucson unions of the AFL-CIO will observe Workers Memorial Day to remember those who have suffered and died on the job, and to renew the fight for safe workplaces.

The toll of workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths is enormous. Each year, thousands of workers are killed, and millions more are injured because of their jobs.

More than three decades ago, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Mine Safety and Health Act, promising every worker the right to a safe job. Unions and our allies have fought hard to make that promise a reality, winning protections that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Nonetheless, the toll of workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths remains enormous.

Our fight for safe jobs has gotten harder, because for more than seven years, the Bush administration has refused to act. Instead, at the behest of corporate interests, the administration has moved to roll back and weaken protections. Voluntary compliance has been favored over enforcement. Progress has ground to a halt and, in many cases, been reversed. Many workers today have minimal protection, with major hazards remaining unaddressed. Catastrophes in coal mines and factories continue, with little action to prevent them.

Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health investigations from July 1, 2007, through December 31, 2007, revealed these occupational fatalities:

· An employee was crushed while making repairs on a tractor. The hydraulics engaged, closing a portion of the tractor on his upper torso.

· An employee fell 9 feet during the process of dismantling a scaffold.

· An employee stood or walked onto a floor joist that was not fully secured. The joist broke free, and the employee fell to the concrete, sustaining fatal head injuries.

· An employee installing a bracket for an HVAC system fell from an 8-foot stepladder.

· An employee cleaning a mixing/blending machine was killed when he requested that a co-worker turn on the machine so the rotating shaft could also be cleaned.

· During maintenance work on a 747 plane, the main landing gear collapsed, crushing the mechanic in the wheel well.

Decades of struggles by workers and their unions have resulted in significant improvements in working conditions--but the fight to protect workers must continue. We must demand strong enforcement of job-safety laws, defend the gains we have won and push forward to address problems that remain:

· Millions of workers, including public-sector workers and flight attendants, have no protection under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

· Companies that have repeatedly broken job-safety laws--killing workers--face only weak penalties.

· Workplace standards are out of date and inadequate.

· Many long-recognized hazards have not been addressed, and new workplace hazards that emerge get no attention.

· Ergonomic hazards still cripple and injure more workers than any other workplace hazard.

· Latino and immigrant workers are being killed on the job in record numbers.

· Coal-mine catastrophes and deaths continue, while needed new protections are delayed.

This year, with the election, there is an opportunity to change the direction of the country and make workers' issues a priority.

On Workers Memorial Day, we will continue the fight. We will fight to create good jobs in this country and to guarantee health care for all. We will fight for the freedom of workers to form unions and, through their unions, to speak out and bargain for safe jobs, respect and a better future.