All of us have a right to safe and healthy jobs

We won’t gather together for it, but this may be the most important Worker Memorial Day of our lifetimes



The ringing of the bell for each fallen worker is part of L&I’s Worker Memorial Day commemoration.

(April 27, 2020) — As President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, I have the honor and privilege of joining representatives of Washington’s state government and the business community at the annual Worker Memorial Day commemoration held each year on or about April 28 at the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) building in Tumwater.

At this solemn and moving event, the families of the Washington workers who lost their lives on the job in the previous year gather to honor their memories, and we all rededicate ourselves to making workplaces safer in this state. It is absolutely heart-wrenching to look into the faces of the children and loved ones these workers left behind. And it serves as an important annual reminder that too many people go to work and never make it home for reasons that are entirely preventable.

But this year, at a time we need this reminder most, the event has been cancelled due to the necessary social restrictions in place to “flatten the curve” of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s never been more important to remember fallen workers and commit to safer workplaces than it is right now. Healthcare workers, first responders, and many other essential workers — from grocery clerks to waste haulers, from bus drivers to farm workers — are putting their lives at risk as you read this. And too many of them are getting sick, and dying, for an entirely preventable reason: they lack the proper protective equipment and policy guidance to do their jobs safely.

Regardless of where you lie on the political spectrum, and of who you blame or credit for the government’s response to the coronavirus, one fact is crystal clear. Both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration has actively weakened work safety rules and has absolutely neutered the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that’s supposed to protect workers from dangerous workplace hazards.

Fifty years ago, Congress created that agency when it passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act. That law made the promise that every worker has the right to a safe job. It was signed by Republican President Richard Nixon. In the 50 years since, working people have fought to gain necessary health and safety rules that have saved many precious lives and prevented injuries and illnesses on the job.

But long before the COVID-19 outbreak, the Trump administration had set back much of that progress by repealing work safety regulations and cutting OSHA enforcement. A 2019 analysis by the National Employment Law Project found that OSHA had the lowest number of health and safety inspectors in the agency’s history and workplace fatality investigations were at decade-high levels.

Now during the COVID-19 outbreak, even as the worst infection hotspots are known to be occurring in “essential” workplaces across the nation — nursing homes, meat processing plants, and other facilities where people work in close proximity — Trump’s OSHA has ignored calls to adopt an emergency temporary contagious disease standard so employers and employees know what they are supposed to do to stay safe. Instead, OSHA has abdicated its responsibilities under the law by calling on employers to self-investigate these hotspots and come up with their own solutions.

Some companies are doing their best to accomplish this, particularly those whose workers have unions to advocate for safety improvements. But too many companies are disinclined or uninterested in making investments to keep their workers safe — and the results are being measured in body bags.

This should be unacceptable to all Americans. We should be absolutely united in demanding that the everyday heroes of the COVID-19 crisis shouldn’t die at work because it’s too hard or too expensive to keep them safe. This is why OSHA exists, to compel employers to make all jobs safe. Under the Trump administration, plain-and-simple, they are not doing their job.

Know this. A year from now, if we are able to gather together around the bell at L&I’s Tumwater building on Worker Memorial Day, we will be ringing it many more times for each of 2020’s fallen workers — likely more times than that bell has ever been rung. And unless we have a new president who cares a little bit more about workers’ lives, that could become a horrible and shameful trend in America.


Larry Brown is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, which represents more than 600 union organizations with 550,000 rank-and-file members. Learn more at wslc.org.


ALSO at The Stand:

Commemorate this year’s Worker Memorial Day safe at home — April 28 is when working people gather to commemorate Worker Memorial Day. It is a day to honor the workers who lost their lives on the job and to renew the call for safer workplaces. Commemorations are usually held in multiple cities across Washington state, but because of the stay-home restrictions due to the coronavirus, many of these events will not be held in a year that they are more important than ever. But some are happening online. Here is how you can commemorate Worker Memorial Day while you stay home and stay safe…

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