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Workers Memorial Day: Mourn the dead, fight for the living

Following are the remarks delivered at Thursday’s Workers Memorial Day commemoration at the Department of Labor and Industries in Tumwater. (Also see Workers Memorial Day events statewide this week.)



(April 26, 2018) — We gather today to mourn, to remember, to pay our respects and honor our sisters and brothers who lost their lives on the job. Across the state, the country, and around the world, we recognize these workers today. To the families here, I am so sorry for your loss. Your family is a critical part of our community, and our economy, and we honor you.

We can’t bring back those workers, but we must take this day to recommit ourselves to fighting for safe workplaces and good jobs for all workers.

Last year, 65 workers in Washington lost their lives in workplace tragedies. Over 5,000 lost their lives nationwide. But that is only part of the deadly toll. Every year, over 50,000 workers die from occupational diseases caused by exposure to toxic chemicals and other health hazards.

In our state, our fatality rates continue to decline. We have dedicated and professional state employees working to investigate, cite, and enforce our strong labor standards. We have a Department of Labor and Industries that is working hard to create a culture of safety and assist workers in healing and returning to work. And last session, our legislature helped in that effort by passing two important worker safety bills, one to ensure that Hanford nuclear reservation workers who contract beryllium poisoning, lung cancer, or occupational dementia will be presumed to have valid workers’ compensation claims, the other establishes a workgroup to identify ways to prevent pesticide drift exposure. These are important steps.

But we still have our work cut out for us, even in Washington state, the official death toll doesn’t tell the whole story. As the underground economy grows, as more and more workers are independent contractors, there are injuries and even deaths that go unreported.  We have a long way to go, especially at the national level.

In 1934, Frances Perkins created the Bureau of Labor Standards to make workplaces “as safe as science and law can make them” We’ve got the science, we know how to prevent workplace injury, illness, and death. The law, however, is not keeping up.

The Trump administration has launched an assault on safety on the job. He’s ordered that for every new protection, two existing safeguards have to be removed. How does that work? We don’t have safety regulations for fun – we have them to protect lives. It’s reprehensible. This administration and Republicans in Congress have overturned a worker safety rule that requires employers to keep accurate injury records, and another requiring businesses that compete for federal contracts to disclose and correct serious safety and labor violations. This, in addition to deep proposed cuts including the elimination of OSHA’s worker safety and health training program and the Chemical Safety Board.

The Trump administration’s attack on immigrant workers threatens workplace safety. Last year, over 35 percent of those who died on the job were immigrant workers. We already know that many workers are afraid to report or refuse dangerous work. We cannot have safe workplaces when workers are afraid to organize and speak up.

Every day in this country, 150 workers die on the job. Today we remember all of them – those who have died and also the millions who are sickened and disabled because of their work. But remembering isn’t enough. We must recommit ourselves to fighting back, to making every workplace safe.

So today, as we remember those workers we’ve lost, and those we will lose from accidents, injury, and disease, let us also remember that these are preventable deaths. We must have the determination and strength to make our workplaces safer, for everyone. We have to educate, to organize, to agitate. On this Workers Memorial Day, we pledge to continue to work to make every workplace safe, to stand up to protect our hard-won gains and fight to make jobs safer and save lives. These are the times Mother Jones was talking about when she said, “Mourn for the dead, fight like hell for the living.”

Lynne Dodson is Secretary Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

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