On Saturday, workers across the nation who lost their lives on the job will be remembered in ceremonies marking Workers Memorial Day.
In 2016, the latest year for which statistics are available nearly 5,200 workers were killed on the job – the highest number of workplace deaths in years. And that is only part of the deadly toll. Each year, more than 50,000 workers die from occupational diseases caused by exposure to toxic chemicals and other health hazards.
Despite these gruesome statistics, the corporate CEOs and billionaires who hold so much sway in our government are succeeding in rolling back safeguards and protections for workers. These are the same super-wealthy political donors who seek to take away our freedom to join together in strong unions.
This year, Workers Memorial Day organizers are placing a special focus on workplace violence, which affects public service workers at a far higher rate than private sector employees. The on-the-job injury rate is 861 percent higher for state workers and 474 percent higher for local workers compared to those working for private employers, the AFL-CIO reports.
At AFSCME, we think especially of Pamela Sue Knight, a child protective services worker in Illinois (Council 31) who died in February of injuries sustained when she was assaulted by the father of a child she was charged with protecting. An investigation by the Chicago Tribune found that, since 2013, at least a dozen workers in the state Department of Child Protective Services (DCPS) had been assaulted on the job.
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2014, workers in health care and social services occupations suffered more than half of all incidents of workplace violence. Corrections officers, too, are at high risk for violent encounters in the workplace.
Since 1996, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has recognized workplace violence as a pressing problem but has not issued specific standard for addressing it.
A 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on workplace violence in health-care settings found that having a specific workplace violence standard would better protect workers. Suggested criteria would include, according to GAO, “setting clearer expectations for employers, increasing employer implementation of workplace violence prevention programs, and simplifying the process for determining when citations could be issued.”
OSHA took up efforts to address the problem in 2016, but the process has stalled since 2017. With regulators now under a mandate from the Trump administration to cut two regulations for every new one issued, advocates fear that any new workplace protections could come at a cost that amounts to a net loss to workers.
Still, AFSCME remains undaunted by these attempts to please the billionaires at the expense of our health and the health of our communities. On Saturday, as we do each Workers Memorial Day, we will, in the words of the great labor organizer, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living!”