This Workers Memorial Day: Reclaim Lives Lost Needlessly to Workplace Hazards
By Jora Trang
Every year, thousands of workers are killed at work in the United States and hundreds in California. Dr. David Michaels, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Federal OSHA has stated at, on average, 12 to 13 workers are killed every day nationwide. Worksafe’s analysis of 2015 Federal OSHA data show an estimated rate of one worker death on the job per week in Northern California alone. In California as a whole, close to four workers are killed each week.
Among these workers, Latinos disproportionately die at work. Analyzing the latest data, Worksafe found that in 2014, while fewer than 2 in 10 Californians were Latino (17.4%), almost 4 in 10 workers killed on the job were Latino (38%). We also found that 43% of workers who fell to their deaths from roofs, cranes, and trees and 48% of all workers crushed to death in machines, smothered in caved-in trenches, or squashed by falling objects like tree limbs were Latino. These statistics are staggering and outrageous. In fact, California was noted to have the highest numbers of Latino deaths in the nation by the AFL-CIO’s 2015 report, “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect.”
Of all these fatalities, the most invisible workers are day laborers. Incidents of injuries and illnesses that affect day laborers are notoriously under-reported to Cal/OSHA. Moreover, media outlets, are, for the most part, silent with respect to reporting stories concerning day laborer health and safety.
And yet we know day laborers are dying at work. Currently, Worksafe is investigating three or more fatalities that we suspect to be day laborer deaths that occurred in 2015. This research is always hampered by delays that may stretch out several years due to the dearth of media attention to day laborer deaths, on-going investigations by government agencies, and employer appeals.
What we do know is that in 2012, several deaths to day laborers were confirmed both by the California Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (CA/FACE) program and through media outlets. For example, CA/FACE confirmed the deaths of two unnamed day laborers: a 28 year old day laborer who died in May of 2012 when he was buried in a trench at a residential home and a 30 year old day laborer died In August of 2012 who was pinned between a loading dock and a truck that was backing into the dock.
The most egregious of these deaths was that of Raul Zapata, a 36 year old day laborer who died in January of 2012 at a residential worksite when a 12 foot excavation wall collapsed on him, burying him alive. Three years after his death, the Santa Clara County Superior Court sentenced the owner of U.S. Sino Investment, Richard Liu, and the project manager, Dan Luo, to two years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. There has only been one other instance of criminal penalties for employer negligence – and that was in 1982 when a Los Angeles County jury convicted the manger of a water reclamation plant for the deaths of two workers who were not provided with gas masks and who died from inhaling toxic fumes.
But Worksafe, Street Level Health Project, and Centro Legal de la Raza are working hard to turn the tide for day laborers in Alameda County. These three Oakland based non-profits have formed a collaboration to create the “Safe, Secure, and Sustainable Jobs for Day Laborers” project. This project is generously funded through a Community Stabilization and Reinvesment Grant administered by the Legal Services Trust Fund Program. It uniquely combines policy advocacy, legal advocacy, and grassroots community empowerment to support and promote the economic development and stabilization of the day labor community and their families in California.
As a part of the project, the partners will hold a Workers Memorial Day event on April 28th, 2016 from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in Downtown Oakland where they will call upon workers, unions, advocates, allies, and government agencies to join them in honoring those who have lost their lives at work. The partners will acknowledge and bear witness to the dead, and to those who are injured or ailing because of the work they do. They will work to make the statistics speak, giving names and stories to numbers. They will show our solidarity with workers, and our commitment to the safety of all workers. Please come out, mourn for the dead, fight like hell for the living.
Jora Trang is the Managing Attorney of Worksafe. Visit Worksafe at www.worksafe.org and http://www.facebook.com/Worksafe.California