Amazon deaths cast a pall over Madison County Workers Memorial Day program

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By CARL GREEN
Illinois Correspondent

CORONER STEVE NONN described the scene at the Amazon warehouse on Dec. 10. – Labor Tribune photo

Alton, IL – It seemed like it would be a night of good news at the annual Workers Memorial Day Observance last week. After all, no union worker fatalities were reported in 2021.

But it was a bad year anyway, because at least 11 workers, all without union protection, are known to have died on the job, not the least being the six Amazon workers killed in the tornado strike on Dec. 10, huddled in a poorly protected restroom.

Three speakers at the Gordon Moore Park Muenstermann Pavilion said the rash of deaths shows why voters need to approve the Workers Rights Amendment on the November ballot that would lead to more workers having union protection.

WHAT THE AMENDMENT WOULD DO
Mike Fultz, a vice president of the hosting Greater Madison County Federation of Labor, called on the audience to work to see that the amendment is passed.

“It would add a new section to the bill of rights article of the Illinois Constitution that would guarantee workers the fundamental right to organize and to bargain collectively, and to negotiate wages, hours and working conditions and promote their economic welfare and safety at work,” Fultz said.

“It would prevent any law that would interfere with or diminish the right to organize and bargain,” he added.

“You’ll be called upon to decide whether the proposed amendment should become part of the Illinois constitution,” he said. “We as a federation have learned a tough lesson at the expense of a lot of lives – that a collective voice in the workplace can and does promote a safer workplace. What better way to share that plan than helping provide these same tools to workers in other community workplaces? Keep that in mind on Election Day.”

AMAZON DEATHS COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE
Madison County Coroner Steve Nonn told a chilling firsthand story about how the Amazon disaster at the Edwardsville warehouse could have turned out even worse.

“We were there from the very beginning,” he said. “The scariest thing about that was when we got there, a second tornado warning was announced. We were in the middle of nowhere.

MADISON COUNTY Associate Judge Ryan Jumper and County Clerk Debbie Ming-Mendoza read the names of workers lost. – Labor Tribune photo

“There was no place for us to go, and you start to realize what those workers are going through,” he added. “They were inside of a building, and they didn’t know what was going on. We were outside the building, preparing to go into the devastation to try to understand these tragedies that had occurred there.

“The wind was whipping; the rain was coming sideways. Two of our guys’ hardhats flew off of their heads. We never did find those hats – never did. That’s how strong the winds were.”

Those Amazon workers were not unionized, but they were trying to make some headway in their lives, Nonn said.

“It was just a realization of the fear I had in my own heart, thinking, my Lord, what were these people thinking when this happened to them?” he said. “They went to work that day to earn a living, to raise a family, to be the best people they could be, and you just never know when you go to work what’s going to happen that day.”

BARGAINING IS AN ABSOLUTE MUST
Nonn spoke out strongly for the Workers Rights Amendment.

“It absolutely has to be added,” he said. “Why? To me the most important thing about collective bargaining is workplace safety. Without collective bargaining and without our unions, the numbers of deaths would be tripled.”

He recalled as a youth seeing photos of I-beams without safety straps where workers had been killed in falls and storms.

“People like you in this room and your parents and your grandparents got involved and said, ‘We’ve got to stop this. We’re losing loved ones.’

“I lost my grandfather. He was a bridge worker and fell off a bridge. There was not tethering, no nothing. They just didn’t do it back then.”

FIVE OTHER DEATHS
Nonn gave the names and causes of death for five other people who died in the county last year.

  • Brian Pierce, 24, of Carbondale was driving to work at his first police job in Brooklyn. He was killed while attempting to stop a fleeing car.
  • Timothy Funk, 41, of Vandalia, died in a fall from a bucket truck while installing a sign in Pontoon Beach.
  • Melvin Branch, 61, of Collinsville, died in a crash of his postal truck on Christmas Eve.
  • Randall Moseby, 19, of Fairview Heights, died when his postal truck hit a tree on the same stormy day as the Amazon deaths.
  • Tyler Timmins, 36, was a Pontoon Beach policeman who was shot and killed on duty.

Aaron Priddy, regional director for the U.S. Department of Labor, in Fairview Heights, made his annual appearance at the ceremony, recalling how much of a difference it made when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was established in 1970 and its enabling act was passed in 1971.

“It was a huge turning point in occupational safety and health here in the United States,” he said. “Workers Memorial Day is now recognized as a national day in countries around the world, and as the world day for safety and health at work by the United Nations.

“Workers Memorial Day is the time to stop and remember the people who have lost their lives while on the job,” he said. “On this day, we mourn each of those lives, we reflect on the impact their loss has on their families and communities, and we recommit ourselves to our moral obligation and duty to protect the workers of America.”

ONE SINGLE LOSS
Priddy’s office handled 14 death investigations in 2021. He recalled one of them. “In July, 20-year-old Joseph Musgrave headed to work for his eighth day on the job,” Priddy said. “ He started that day with the aspirations that any 20-year-old has, thinking that life is great, I’m indestructible and I’ve got nothing but clear skies ahead of me. I’ve got a great new job, I’ve had my first week in, and I can’t wait to get my first paycheck.

“But the young man went to work one night at a remote oil-well drilling rig near Carmi,” Priddy added. “As he worked to help lower a 30-foot line of 6-inch-in-diameter pipe into a cradle, it jumped from the guide, causing the lifting collar to come loose and become unlatched from the pipe. The pipe fell and struck Joseph, causing a severe head injury which ultimately took his life.”

The drilling rig was old and in ill-repair, with worn-out parts that needed replacing.

“This drilling rig looked like it had been engineering and fabricated shortly after World War II and hadn’t seen a bit of service since,” Priddy said.

But each death on the job does unspeakable damage and leaves emotional scars that will never fully heal, he added.

“We need to know the stories like these,” he said. “We need to know and understand  the impact of their loss. We need to remember them, mourn their lives, grieve with the families and work together to learn what more needs to be done to save lives.

“We must also listen to the voices of workers everywhere. They know their jobs and what it takes to do their jobs safely. Workers want to do their jobs well and safely so they can go home to their families at the end of their shifts.

OSHA’s mission is to make safety and health a core part of every business and help business owners develop and maintain safety and health management systems, he added.

“I understand the impact it has on the families’ lives when they know that their loved ones aren’t coming home,” he said. “Take those stories to heart, put those in your lunch box every day. Sometimes it seems easy to take the shortcut, but unfortunately, shortcuts can cost us everything.”

THE SERVICE
Madison County Associate Judge Ryan Jumper and Madison County Clerk Debbie Ming-Mendoza read the names of all the county’s union members who have died on the job. The Alton Firefighters Bagpipe and Drum corps performed “Amazing Grace.”

Larry Evans of the United Congregations of Metro-East gave the invocation and this pertinent benediction.

“The names of our schoolmates and families were read tonight,” he said. “As I offer a benediction for those of us who grieve, I confess that I am one. You have given us a way to set things right – confession, repentance and righteousness. But repentance doesn’t just mean sorrow, it means a change of behavior. May we leave this place tonight renewed in the commitment that we must require – of ourselves and those for whom we work and those who make policy for us – a change of behavior, not just in decision-making, and not just sorrow. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. Make this not what we believe, but how we live.”

Rep. Katie Stuart issues sharp rebuke to OSHA letting Amazon off the hook

Edwardsville, IL – State Rep. Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville, has issued a stern reply to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which ruled that Amazon did not violate the Occupational Health and Safety Act on Dec. 10, the day a tornado collapsed an Edwardsville warehouse, causing the deaths of six employees.

As a result, OSHA said it will recommend only voluntary steps to improve safety at its facilities.

“While I commend OSHA for its swift and efficient investigation into this incident, there’s more work to do because basic questions remain unanswered,” Stuart said. “Today, I am reaffirming my commitment to getting those answers. I continue to support everyone impacted by this tragedy.”

In its letter, OSHA described three main workplace conditions which it identified as “risk factors.” First was a megaphone that, according to the facility’s Emergency Action Plan, was to be used to activate shelter-in-place procedures but was locked in a cage and not accessible, Stuart said.

Second, some employees at the facility did not know the location of the facility’s designated shelter area, and did not recall ever having conducted a severe weather safety drill, she said.

“Managers verbally directed employees to take shelter in the facility’s restroom, but only one of two restrooms in the facility was designed to act as a shelter, and some workers, unaware of this, instead tried to shelter in the other, unprotected, restroom,” she said.

Finally, the emergency plan was not customized for the Edwardsville facility, containing, for example, instructions for what to do in the event of a hurricane, she said, and the plan did not specifically state the location of the designated shelter area.

“No family should have to wonder if their loved one will return from work unharmed, and employers owe each and every one of their workers a non-negotiable duty of care,” Stuart said. ““I call upon Gov. Pritzker and my colleagues in the Legislature to join me in taking concrete steps to better protect not only those who work in facilities like Amazon’s in Edwardsville, but all Illinois workers.”

Stuart can be reached at 618-365-6650, or by email at kara.repstuart@gmail.com.

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