Workers Memorial Day

The following is an op-ed by Becky Moeller, the President of the Texas AFL-CIO, which I was asked to run as a guest column by Ed Sills. I thought it was interesting and timely, so here it is for your perusal:

On Workers Memorial Day, We ‘Fight for the Living’

By Becky Moeller

President, Texas AFL-CIO

Monday, April 28 is the 20th commemoration of Workers Memorial Day, an observance that most Texans have probably never heard of. To working families, though, the subject is one of deep and lasting concern as the labor movement pauses to remember the victims of workplace fatalities and rededicate ourselves toward preventing future deaths on the job.

Legendary organizer Mother Jones summed up the spirit of the day: “Mourn for the dead and fight like hell for the living!”

In newly released Bureau of Labor Statistics figures covering 2006, Texas saw 489 workplace fatalities, just slightly below the 495 of the previous year. While Texas ranked 25th among the states in per capita fatalities, the number represents a rate of 4.5 deaths per 100,000 workers, which is above the national average of 4.0. Another 258,500 workers reportedly were injured or contracted occupational illnesses, the official statistics suggest.

Almost all the workplace fatalities involved transportation incidents (202), acts of violence (59), contact with objects or equipment (88), falls (60), exposure to harmful substances (54) or fires and explosions (23). A disproportionate number of worker fatalities occur among Hispanics and immigrant workers.

Monday also marks the anniversary of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, signed into law by the liberal President Richard Nixon and enforced since then with lack of gums, much less teeth.

The latest government figures show that Texas businesses experienced a grand total of 3,491 routine OSHA inspections in 2006. At that rate, it would take 148 years for the agency to visit every eligible workplace for a routine safety inspection.

It’s not like there’s nothing to be found. A recent round of OSHA inspections of Texas refineries found numerous violations. OSHA workers are conscientious and effective when given a chance to inspect, and they do a fine job when called in to probe deaths in the workplace. When it comes to prevention, though, they are simply without resources to do the job.

What can Texas do to stave off worker fatalities?

For some years now, the Texas AFL-CIO has advocated for a state OSHA to complement the federal agency and focus on industries that have a history of deadly accidents. We believe preventive care is always cheaper than post-disaster consequences: Witness the BP explosion of 2005, in which about $150,000 of repairs could have prevented a multi-billion dollar catastrophe. A state OSHA would encourage employers in the most dangerous industries to stay ahead of tragedy. It would save far more than it costs, both in lives and money.

Many Texas employers responsibly place safety first, but the state’s mechanism for addressing the ones who don’t is weak. Besides a measured increase in regulation, Texas workers need reasonable access to the justice system when irresponsible employers cause workplace harm.

This week, the House Business and Industry Committee and Senate State Affairs Committee will consider a range of issues involving access to the courts for workplace injury victims. Among the issues: A recent Texas Supreme Court decision that would have denied courthouse access to any worker injured anywhere if the premises owner carried the right kind of workers’ compensation insurance – regardless of whether the worker is even an employee.

The Supreme Court wisely withdrew the unanimous decision in Entergy v. Summers after a bipartisan group of legislators argued that the justices had misinterpreted state law. But to protect the right of workers to seek justice when they are injured, the Legislature should consider clarifying the rights of all injured workers to encourage employers to maintain the safest possible workplaces.

The vaunted “healthy business climate” in Texas must include better incentives for employers to keep workers alive and well. That’s a basic principle that would honor the memories of the 500 or so Texas workers who die each year on the job.

Becky Moeller is president of the Texas AFL-CIO, a state labor federation of approximately 220,000 affiliates that advocates in the Legislature and political arena for working people in Texas.

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