From Portland, Conn., to Savar, Bangladesh, we watched as the families buried their dead. The industrial accidents that killed their loved ones were a shame, a tragedy, much like a freak tornado or a house fire. Luck of the draw. It could have been us. Then we moved on.
That’s why April 28 — Workers’ Memorial Day — is so important. Most of us did not mark the first anniversary of the Bangladesh factory collapse that resulted in 1,129 deaths (April 24, 2013) or the fourth anniversary of our state’s Kleen Energy construction site explosion (February, 2010) in which six people died.
Workers’ Memorial Day makes us stop and ask: Were these deaths avoidable? The answer is yes.
Workplace injuries and deaths have haunted Connecticut industry since the first factories rose more than 150 years ago:
- Matilda Cevitti worked at American Hatter and Furrier in Danbury. There were no state or federal laws requiring safety devices on factory machines. On April 6, 1906, Matilda was standing near a revolving machine shaft that generated static and caught her hair. The shaft ripped off her scalp and caused serious injuries to her face, hearing, and eyesight;
- In the two weeks before the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory horror in New York, fires broke out in four Connecticut businesses: the Ansonia Novelty Co., Starr Brothers tobacco warehouse in Enfield, New Haven’s Bijou Theater, and the Sterling Piano Co. in Derby;
- In 1910 a race horse accidentally killed while being transported by train meant the owner could collect $40,000 in damages. A workman who died on the railroad tracks provided a payout of $500 to the widow.
“This is a great country for liberty, but we lay more emphasis on liberty of property than we do on liberty of life,” declared Dr. Allan D. Risteen, who worked as a safety expert for the Hartford-based Travelers Insurance Co. throughout the 1920s. He reported that across the country, 2 million workers were injured each year, and 100 workers a day died from industrial accidents.
Over the years, grass-roots activism by workers and their unions has drastically cut the number of deaths and injuries that haunt industrial growth. The dangers have not disappeared: Injuries for certain job categories have actually increased this year, including home care and social service jobs. Blacks and Hispanics are still the largest groups hurt at work, and in health care, 90 percent of those injured are women.
There are still 3 million workers every year who are injured at work. And on average, 13 workers go to their jobs each morning and never return — sacrificed to profit and the “emphasis on property.” In Connecticut, an average of three workers die each month and nearly 50,000 are injured a year, according to the state Department of Labor.
The national AFL-CIO figures it would take Connecticut’s 24 safety inspectors a total of 106 years to inspect each workplace in the state once. Worker and union vigilance is the only way we can halt hazards and death in the workplace.
That’s why the fight continues. The statewide group known as ConnectiCOSH (coalition for occupational safety and health) stresses that workers need the proper protections, the right tools, comprehensive training and independent monitoring to keep them safe. Accountability at the top is key to ensuring that workers “do the job safe, not just quick,” according to group spokesman Steven Schrag. Corporate CEOs should be held personally responsible for effective safety and health programs, Schrag says.
A worker-friendly administration in Washington is also helping to turn the tide. Jordan Barab, a longtime safety advocate, was appointed by Barack Obama in 2009 as deputy assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA. Since promotions come with a new office and the chance to redecorate, Jordan seized the advantage. In OSHA’s main conference room, he took down the photos of agency staff that filled one wall. With the help of families who lost loved ones, he hung photos of workers who have died on the job.
At OSHA, it’s Workers’ Memorial Day every day. It should be the same for Connecticut workplaces. As labor heroine Mother Jones said, we still need to “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes for The Shoeleather History Project (www.shoeleatherhistoryproject.com)