By Lin Nelson
To Remember, Honor and Strengthen Resolve for Workplace Safety and Health
Death, disability, disease – from hazards endured on the job.
This is not a new issue. For a long time we’ve known that work can be hazardous, uneven in its impacts and challenging to respond to. Right now, in this Covid era, the workers’ health movement reminds us that workplace health and safety should not be a sideline, but a central issue for social justice and public health.
The roots of this problem go way back ... to the earliest mining and metals work, in agriculture and in industrial production. One event – 110 years ago – captured people’s attention: the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City on March 25, 1911. 140 people – mostly young immigrant women workers – died in this workplace apocalypse. Garment work in the beginning of the last century was one of the dynamos of U.S. production and it depended on the availability of vulnerable workers, especially new immigrants. Fire hazard was a steady threat as they worked in cramped quarters, with limited paths to flee from the flames. This was compounded by a door kept locked so the owners could check their bags for any “pilfered goods”. One locked door can mean a lot to workers who are hoping to live another day; the locking of workplaces continues to this day as other fire dramas have consumed workers’ lives. The Remember The Triangle Fire Coalition calls on us to remember this vital, troubling history and link it to ongoing efforts to strengthen workers’ right-to-know and right-to-act.
The United Nations Human Rights Commission has declared safe and healthy working conditions to be a fundamental human right, while pointing to the continuing violation of that right around the world (including in the U.S.). We still need to strategize how to bring attention to the hazards, how to make systemic responses have traction, and how to protect those who step out as whistleblowers. Right now, with all the damage done by the Trump regime on undermining labor, justice and health, there’s much build-back that needs to be done. NIOSH, OSHA and state labor and health departments have always had an uphill battle. They are operating in political zones where the “client that matters” is far more likely to be owners/managers than those working for a living. The launch of Workers’ Memorial Week in the last week of April is not just a needed remembrance. It is a re-dedication to not only restore some of the original intent of protective public systems, but to build-back-stronger.
This can only be done by building support for publicly understood and applied science – by sharing the evolving science in accessible ways, by supporting the exchange of knowledge, and taking on the science-doubters like Tucker Carlson, among many. Tony Mazzochi was a champion of building strong links between science, public health practice, labor and community. Those of us in the labor and public health movements need to continue in that work…. with a strong focus on movements: on-the-ground, in-the-streets actions that remind people of the hazards faced by their families, their neighbors and their communities.
Labor advocates and community groups around the country are connecting with the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health to share information, organize events, and bring attention to this year’s deepened vulnerabilities, especially “essential workers” who have endured so much to protect the public. National COSH is collecting information on the workplace fatalities that can be directly linked to Covid. The workplace-Covid link must be publicly acknowledged so that we appreciate the work of industrial hygienists who are mapping the impacts of workplace exposure and design, so that we are vigilant about hazards, and so that we make sure compensation gets delivered to workers and their families. On Tuesday, April 27th, National COSH is hosting an online speak-out from 11 – 12:30 PT that will feature the stories of impacted workers and their families.
Here in WA, remembrance was powerfully demonstrated in the fall when Yakima agricultural workers gathered to honor David Cruz, one of their co-workers fallen-to-covid (see the link below). Last week the Evergreen State College hosted its annual Farmworker Justice event – deepening knowledge of what has been endured in the fields and packing houses. On April 13th the City of Olympia declared the last week of April “Workers Memorial Week.” We can hope that next week is the beginning of a renewed dedication to workers’ health and the health of communities.
(Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, linking the 1911 fire to ongoing struggles)
(on our home page, see short video Dia de los Muertos: Agricultural Workers in Yakima, remembering co-worker David Cruz)
(Farmworker Justice event 4/21 held at The Evergreen State College, in collaboration with Community-to-Community/Whatcom County.
Resources/media on farmworkers, hazards they face, movement building)
(National Council on Occupational Safety & Health, with info and ideas for Workers’ Memorial Week, including special 4/27 press event)
Workers in Yakima, WA. carry the body of their co-worker, David Cruz, who passed away from COVID in the early days of the May 2020 strike for health and safety protections.
Lin Nelson is a retired college teacher, renewing her ties to the worker safety and health movement.