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Mourn For The Dead, Fight For The Living


Well, I thought I'd invite you all over to my place tonight.  My "place" is Confined Space where I write about the rather obscure topic of workplace safety and health — not exactly a blog-leader when it comes to popularity, but a pretty important issue for the families and friends of the roughtly 5700 workers who die in accidents ever year, the 60,000 who die of occupational diseases and the hundreds of thousands who are injured in the workplace every year.

Most people have heard of the Sago mine disaster. But what most people don't realize is that if the twelve Sago miners who died on January 2 were the only workers to die in the workplace that day, it would have been a good day in American workplaces. 15 workers die in accidents ever day in the United States and the vast majority could have been prevented had the employer simply been complying with OSHA standards or other safe work practices.

Every two weeks my colleague and I compile all the articles we can find about workers who died in the workplace. Here's just a short sample of what we're talking about:

 Tyson worker dies after fall

A warehouse worker at the Tyson Valley Distribution Center on Highway 64 was killed early Monday morning after falling 28 feet from the extension bucket of a forklift, according to Pope County Coroner Leonard Krout. Gregory K. Duvall, 29, of Atkins died at Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center at about 5 a.m. shortly after Pope County EMS transported him from the warehouse.

Social Worker found slain in Ky.; baby kidnapped

HENDERSON, Ky. – A social worker who had taken a 10-month-old boy to his mother‘s house for a visit was found slain, and the baby was apparently abducted, authorities said. Police searched on Tuesday for the missing boy, who was believed to be with his mother, Renee Terrell, 33, and her boyfriend. "It‘s a dangerous job anytime you‘re taking someone‘s child away from their parents," Sgt. Dwight Duncan said. "You know how protective parents can be."

One man was killed and another suffered major injuries when they were hit by a pickup truck this morning while working on a road project on Belmont Avenue just west of Fresno, the California Highway Patrol reported.

Identities of the victims were not immediately released.

Electric worker dies in accident

HOUGHTON, Mich. An electric company worker is dead after a weekend accident at Michigan Tech University in Houghton. Bill Lehtinen was working before dawn Saturday on a high-voltage switch on the university campus when he was killed. The 57-year-old man lived in Calumet and worked for Northland Electric of White Pine. Public Safety officers tried unsuccessfully to revive him.

Man killed in workplace accident

A 51-year-old man was killed Monday night in a workplace accident in the Nalley Valley, Tacoma police reported. Kenneth Williams somehow fell into a large machine at Birds Eye Foods, 3303 S. 35th St., just before 11 p.m. and died, police spokesman Mark Fulghum said. His cause of death has not been released, pending an autopsy. Investigators will be looking into exactly what Williams

Water main bursts, worker killed

A Denver Water maintenance worker died early today when a high-pressure, 24-inch underground water line let go and flooded the hole he was working in. Shawn Patilla, 35, of Denver, died at Swedish Hospital from head and neck injuries he received when a faulty water valve exploded around 11 p.m., Thursday. Co-workers said he was married and the father of three daughters. He had worked at Denver Water for five years, starting as a meter reader, they said. Patilla, standing in an eight-foot deep hole that had been dug through the asphalt at 4100 S. University Boulevard opposite the entrance to Cherry Hills Country Club, was pinned down by "extremely high-pressure" water, said Denver Water spokeswoman Trina McGuire-Collier. Denver Water said that waterline held the water at a pressure of 90 pounds per square inch.

Worker killed at Donnelley
 LANCASTER COUNTY, PA – A workman was accidentally crushed to death early today as he was replacing belts in a stacking machine at the R.R. Donnelley & Sons plant, 216 Greenfield Road, Lancaster police said. The victim reportedly was a 48-year-old Lancaster-area man who has worked at the plant for at least 10 years. Police are withholding his name until next of kin are notified. The accident happened at 12:50 a.m. today. City police Officer Paul Blanchflower said the man had climbed into a stacking machine to replace belts when the machine started moving for an unknown reason. The man was pinned and then crushed by the machine. Workers and a LEMSA ambulance crew freed him in three to five minutes, but it was too late. He had fatal head injuries and was pronounced dead at the scene by Deputy Coroner Matthew Arnold, police said.

Worker Burned In Wal-Mart Accident Dies

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — A worker burned in an electrical fire at the Bloomington Wal-Mart Supercenter has died. Wishard Hospital spokeswoman Michelle O'Keefe said that 35-year-old Scott Shelton of Anderson died Friday. Shelton had been treated at Wishard's burn center since the accident in August. Shelton and two other contractors from Electromation of Muncie were working on an electrical panel in a service room inside the new Wal-Mart store in Bloomington when a piece of metal made contact with the live panel, unleashing about 12,000 volts of electricity.

2 still missing from La. pipeline blast

CYPREMORT POINT, La. –Investigators were trying Saturday to determine the cause of a gas pipeline explosion that killed four people off the Louisiana coast, as a Coast Guard auxiliary plane searched for two people still missing since the blast.

Authorities believe the explosion occurred when a barge that was being pushed by a tug boat struck the pipeline. A witness said flames shot up 100 feet in the air. The bodies of four barge workers have been found. Two others were rescued, one unharmed and the other hospitalized with severe burns.

Well, you get the idea.

More than 100 workers like these died in the workplace over the past week. But unlike the Sago miners, unless you live in one of the communities where one of these workers died, you've probably never heard of then. The only difference is that the other 100 only got a couple of paragraphs in the local newspaper. No outrage, no anger, no call to action, no legislation. They weren’t glamorous enough. In fact, they were generally people who do ordinary, dirty jobs on construction sites, roads and factories. Most of them died alone, only noticed and remembered by their immediate family, friends and co-workers.

You will only need a few moments on Google to find the names, pictures, hometowns and dates of death of every American killed in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past three years. But you can search long and hard, and ultimately in vain for the names of the more than 5,700 Americans killed in the workplace last year. You’ll find the few that I can locate on Confined Space. But otherwise, they don’t exist, except in statistics.

And these fatalities aren't part of the political debates raging throughout the country these days, despite the neglect that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has received during the past six years. We need to take advantage of every teachable moment. Last year, we had over 5700 “teachable moments” when workers lost their lives in the workplace (not counting the 50,000 to 100,000 workers who die each year of occupational diseases.) Fatalities among foreign-born and native born Hispanic workers continue to rise disproportionately. We need to take those moments to educate journalists and politicians. Hopefully after November 7, we will be able to rely more on Congressional hearings to bring out the truth.

The truth is that no one notices. The truth is that fines and penalties aren't anywhere close to the level that would provide a real incentive for employers to make their workplaces safe. Bush's OSHA continues to cite employers who kill. But the maximum penalty for the killing of a worker due to the willful (knowing) violation of an OSHA standard is $70,000. Almost no one ever goes to jail, and if they do, the maximum penalty is a misdemeanor amounting to a maximum of 6 months in jail (Compare this to New York labor leader Brian Brian McLaughlin who was accused today of fraud, embezzlement, money laundering and other crimes, and faces up to 500 years in prison.) The average OSHA penalty is only $883. Your much more likely to get a large fine and jail time if you violate environmental regulations by spilling chemicals and killing fish and birds than if you kill a worker. Yet this administration refuses to entertain the idea that penalties need to rise to the point where employers will fear violating health and safety standards as much as they fear driving too fast.

OSHA, under the Bush administration, no longer issues health and safety standards unless forced by the courts. Instead if forms "alliances" with employer groups and relies on the "business case" to convince employers to do the right thing because "safety pays" .  But what if safety doesn't "pay" in some situations? What if making the workplace safe actually cuts into the profit margin? Is that a good excuse to cut back on safety protections according to OSHA?

The AFL-CIO estimates that at its current staffing and inspection levels, it would take federal OSHA 117 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once.  In other words, despite the legal requirement that OSHA ensure that every American worker have a safe workplace, we've fallen down on the job and have no will to get up.

We can start turning things around on November 7. At very least, we'll be able to start the long-forgotten practice of holding oversight hearings — holding this administration to its duty to execute the laws of the land.

Lives depend on it. Literally.

Jordan Barab spends endless nights in his basement ranting and raving at Confined Space.

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Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab