Injured workers and the loved ones of those killed on the job shared their stories at a remembrance ceremony for Workers Memorial Day on Tuesday, shining a light on how bad safety standards are in the workplace, even in 2014.
One worker talked about a colleague who was killed on the job falling into a meat grinder, a tragedy that could have been avoided if proper safety measures would have been in place. Each story as shocking as the last, workers described workplace horrors that led one to question: If this is the 21st century, why do so many workplaces look like a modern day version of something out of Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle?
Arthur Meeks, a worker who suffered a serious injury on the job when a machine crushed his arm, shared his story with the 100-person ceremony:
“I tried to come up with every excuse to cancel today. Ultimately, I realized I owe it to myself and the thousands of others in similar situations to tell my story and to be the face representing those who couldn’t be here because they were hurt, or even killed on the job.”
Arthur said about an hour after his arm was crushed on the job, he found himself at the emergency room where a physician reassured him that he was going to be okay. Once Arthur heard this, another fear immediately overwhelmed him and he blurted out, “They’re going to fire me.” Confused the doctor responded, “Have you seen your arm? Don’t worry about being fired; you have much bigger things to worry about right now.”
True, Arthur’s arm was dangling like a wet spaghetti noodle, but even through the excruciating pain of a crushed limb, the fear of not being able to provide for his wife and three kids overtook his thoughts. What seemed like a crazy, maybe even silly fear to the doctor is actually an unfortunate reality for millions of workers across the nation.
Arthur Meeks, like millions of workers across the country, was working as a temporary machinist in a factory when his arm was crushed, a safety oversight that should never have been repeated yet a few months later a colleague of his was needlessly killed in the same factory.
Increasingly, companies are doing everything in their power to buffer themselves from workers. They accomplish this employing temporary agencies or labor subcontractors. These agencies and subcontractors allow for companies to not only shield themselves from paying fair wages and basic benefits, but this setup also enables employers to shirk their responsibility for providing a safe workplace.
Here’s the real kicker: when a temp worker is injured or killed on the job, the subcontracting agency has often already taken precautionary measures to insulate itself from liabilities as well– leaving the injured worker and his or her family in limbo and completely vulnerable to unemployment, staggering medical bills and all the hardships that come along with a workplace injury or death.
Between temporary agencies and the big companies that employ them, workers on a massive scale have been made entirely disposable. This isn’t some fictitious tale happening in a faraway place like China and it’s not 1900. Sadly, this story is happening all across the United States, circa right now.
Art Pulaski, Executive Secretary-Treasurer for the California Labor Federation laid out some of the facts around the growing threats of workplace safety and temporary workers.
“The first few days on the jobs are the far the most dangerous for temporary workers. Because of the nature of temporary and subcontracted employment, the rigorous training practices ensured union shops are ignored and workers are left ill-equipped to do dangerous work, putting themselves and their co-workers at serious risk.
“When workers leave home for a shift, there shouldn’t be a question that they will return home to their loved ones safely at the end of the workday. The way things stand now, returning home safely is certainly not guaranteed.”
Fortunately, progress is being made in Sacramento with new legislation. AB 1897, introduced Assemblyman Roger Hernandez aims to hold companies accountable for serious violations of workers’ rights, committed their own labor suppliers to workers on their premises. This simple rule would incentivize the use of responsible contractors, rather than promote a race to the bottom.
Additionally, it would protect vulnerable temporary workers and businesses that follow the law and don’t profit from cheating workers. Further, AB 1897 would offer workers a clear path to accountability for workplace violations and it offers employers a clear path to compliance.