We all remember the excitement of the first day of our first job. As grocery store cashiers or waiters or whatever we do, we take pride in our work from day one. That passion makes the reality of death on the job all the more tragic. We can and must do better.
In our own state of Iowa 39 working people died in 2015 from workplace injuries, says the new annual report “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect” from the AFL-CIO. All told, 4,821 working people died in the U.S. from job injuries and an estimated 50,000 from chronic occupational illnesses, like black lung and silicosis, caused by exposure to toxic chemicals and dust in the workplace. That’s 150 working people dying every day.
The saddest thing is most, if not all, of these deaths are preventable.
We know what it takes to keep people safe. Working people must be allowed to raise concerns without fear of punishment and job loss. Our elected officials need to take threats seriously and demand solutions to threats posed by toxins and other harmful substances that working people endure.
The evidence tells us that too many companies large and small, left to their own devices, ignore dangerous conditions in favor of their bottom line. Meanwhile working people sometimes will do whatever it takes to provide for ourselves and our families, even work at a job that makes us fear for our lives, especially in times like now when good jobs are scarce.
Working people face serious job hazards in many industries. Construction workers are commonly exposed to deadly silica dust, which causes disabling lung disease and cancer. Simple procedures, like the use of water to suppress the dust, can save someone from a painful death that’s been described as slow-motion suffocation.
Workplace violence is a growing threat, particularly for women, and Latino workers still face higher than average death rates as they are far more likely to work in high-danger jobs.
Let’s challenge ourselves to reduce workplace death to zero, because even one is too many.
We’ll have to pressure our elected officials across Iowa to ensure safety at work. If they don’t listen we’ll fight to elect new leaders who will. We’ll demand stronger workplace safety laws, no matter what the moneyed interests say.
Our lives are too important to be anything less than the top priority.
I hope that at next year’s Workers Memorial Day, there are zero names to read of those who died while at work.
Join us. Let’s educate [ REPORT: aflcio.org/death-on-the-job] our co-workers and friends. Let’s join together to organize and mobilize our workplaces, neighborhoods and communities. Let’s demand safety, and while we’re at it, let’s win fair pay and good benefits, too!
Ken Sagar, President of the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO