By CARL GREEN
Alton – American workers have secured major gains in workplace safety in recent decades but will have to fight to maintain them and move forward, according to speakers at the Workers Memorial Day Service.
Madison County State’s Attorney Tim Gibbons was the main speaker at the 24th annual event, held April 28 at the workers’ memorial in Gordon Moore Community Park in Alton. About 100 people turned out on a cool, misty afternoon.
Said Gibbons: “We’re here to honor the lives lost and the suffering of those who were left behind. But I ask, ‘Why do we even have to be here? What makes it possible for people to go to work and lose their lives?’
He briefly sketched the history of workplace safety efforts, starting with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factor fire in New York City in 1911, which killed 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women who could not escape through locked doors. The fire led to improved safety standards, but it took another 60 years before the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “Clearly, progress was too slow,” Gibbons said.
In recent years, workplace safety records have improved, but OSHA remains under continual assault from political opponents seeking to diminish its worker protections. Around the world, such protections often are still non-existent, such as in Bangladesh, where the collapse of a garment industry building on April 24 killed more than 400 workers, with thousands more injured, he noted.
Gibbons also cited the April 17 explosion of the fertilizer plant near Waco, Texas, that killed at least 15 people, injured hundreds of others and destroyed much of the town called West. The plant had avoided OSHA inspections since 1985 despite storing large amounts of highly explosive chemicals – across the street from a middle school, nursing home and apartment group. “How does something like that go on?” Gibbons said.
Just after the explosion, Texas Gov. Rick Perry had the gall to spend two days in Illinois wooing its industrial leaders with promises of lower costs and less regulation. “This is a war,” said Gibbons, “and they are proudly fighting on their side. Will we be strong enough to fight back and win the battle?”
The new strategy to reduce safety protection and enforcement is to starve regulators such as OSHA of the resources they need to do their jobs, Gibbons said. For instance, under its current budget, it would take OSHA 131 years to make all of the inspections it is supposed to make.
“If that doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about enforcement, I don’t know what will,” he said. “When there’s no one there to hold them responsible, they will not comply.
“We have to keep up the fight to fund the agencies. That’s our front line,” he added.
The Greater Madison County Federation of Labor holds the annual service. Its president, B. Dean Webb, also recalled the formation of OSHA four decades ago.
“It happened because union members fought for and demanded greater protection,” he said. “It was the working people, through their unions, that made this happen.”
But too many workers still are dying on the job, an average of 12 a day across the nation. “Men and women go to work and never return home to their loved ones,” Webb said. “There is much to be done. As Mother Jones said, we pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
Three union members who lost their lives on the job in the past year were honored at the event. They include:
• George Weiss, a member of Steamfitters Local 430, who died of heart failure while at work..
• David Burns, a member of Electrical Workers Local 1439 who was electrocuted by a high-powered wire while doing storm cleanup. He was noted as a stickler for safe conditions.
• Gregory Mehochko, of Laborers Local 670, who also came into contact with a high-power line on the job.
Labor Tribune photo