Workers Memorial Day: A Time to Honor the Fallen, Protect the Injured and Prevent Future Fatalities

Every year on April 28th, working families nationwide gather to commemorate Workers Memorial Day and honor those who’ve lost their lives to work-related injury.  The occasion commits every one of us to prevent additional fatalities and minimize workplace injuries — and always call on others to do the same. April 28th also presents us, as workers, with a unique opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices we make and to renew the fight for the safety and respect we deserve at work.

In 2010, over 300 Californians lost their lives in work-related accidents, and about 6,500 died from chronic workplace exposure to chemicals and other toxins. Workers throughout every industry sector are affected, and potentially deadly hazards persist in every workplace.

In addition to these fatalities, for every 100 California workers, four nonfatal injuries are disclosed annually to the workers compensation system, and countless more go unreported. These incidents, numbering over half a million in our state alone, range from repetitive motion disorders to sudden trauma. All cause harm far exceeding the value of medical treatment and lost time compensation offered; many do permanent, crippling damage.

These figures, though alarming, fail to convey the full impact of work-related injuries. Such tragedies do damage that goes far beyond financial, as the emotional and physical costs can be immeasurable. A disabled worker often suffers from lasting depression and physical pain that can dramatically—and permanently—diminish that worker’s overall quality of life. The family of a killed worker, obviously, will never fully recover.

Every year. we learn more about how to avoid and prevent these sorts of injuries and fatalities. But as these staggering numbers confirm, far too many workers are suffering bodily harm at work, and more must be done.

This and every Worker’s Memorial Day, then, our challenge is threefold: honor these fallen workers, protect the rights of the injured, and prevent as many work-related fatalities and injuries as possible.

One critical way to honor fallen workers is simply to guarantee that surviving family members receive adequate compensation for the sudden loss of income. Bills such as AB 2451 (John A. Perez), for example, would allow the families of firefighters killed by certain workplace hazards to apply for workers compensation death benefits. Such efforts should be supported and other, similar measures should be explored.  

Additionally, we must ensure injured workers have the ability to secure adequate medical treatment and disability compensation. The California Labor Federation and other worker advocates recently launched a massive campaign to strengthen permanent disability benefits and reduce needless medical treatment delays, but the effort won’t get far without your help. As the campaign moves forward, we’ll frequently be calling on advocates across California to get active, write letters, come to Sacramento, and help agitate and fight for better treatment of injured workers.

With regards to prevention, step one is education. Here in California, we’re fortunate to have a strong worker protection agency, Cal/OSHA, that prioritizes educating workers and employers alike in the value of injury and illness prevention. For example, Cal/OSHA is currently engaged in what’s known as a Special Emphasis Program (SEP) to minimize confined space hazards faced by countless construction, transportation, and food processing workers. The agency also operates numerous other safety programs, and we applaud Cal/OSHA’s efforts to save lives and prevent injuries.

As workers, however, safety and prevention begin with us. That means creating a culture where workers aren’t intimidated into ignoring blatant hazards or threatened into working despite injury. Every day, too many workers must quietly tolerate dangerous environments or suffer through a work-related condition out of fear of employer reprisal.

Such jobsites are a disaster waiting to happen, and we believe the right of workers to collectively bargain for safer workplaces is fundamental. Organize a union if this situation sounds familiar. If you’re already in a union, talk to your union representative, organize co-workers, and form a plan to address the situation. Either way, if the danger continues, consider reporting hazards to Cal/OSHA.

This Workers Memorial Day, take time to remember those killed on the job and take the opportunity to safeguard your own work environment. Now is the time to begin working to make sure that next year, we’ll have fewer fallen workers to memorialize.