Workers' Memorial Day is celebrated on April 28th each year, the anniversary of the day that the Occupational Safety and Health Act went into effect in 1971. In passing the OSH Act, Congress declared its intent "to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions and to preserve our human resources." Today, we spend the entire week commemorating the losses of the families of those killed on the job, recognizing working men and women for their contributions to society and the economy, and rededicating ourselves to safe and healthy workplaces.
The OSH Act had a dramatic impact on the workplace fatality rate. Although accurate statistics were not kept at the time, it is estimated that in 1970 around 14,000 workers were killed due to fatal occupational injuries in the United States. In 2016 that number was 5,190. Additionally, since the passage of the OSH Act, the rate of reported serious workplace injuries and illnesses has declined from 11 per 100,000 workers in 1972 to 3.6 in 2016. A major reason that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been so successful is that most workplace fatalities are preventable with proper safety training and equipment.
The New Hampshire Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (NHCOSH) has been able to identify 11 NH workers killed on the job last year. Several of these workers would be alive today had their employers followed the law and provided proper safety training and equipment.
Christopher Hewey, 37, of East Alstead was working in a trench on a construction project in Acworth on May 17th last year. A trench is naturally dangerous; it is a narrow pit that is deeper than it is wide. There are no warnings when an unprotected trench fails, the walls can collapse suddenly and workers can be left trapped or crushed by tons of earth. For perspective, one cubic yard of dirt can weigh as much as a mid-sized car. OSHA requires that all excavations over 5 feet deep use a worker protective system since trench work is so dangerous. Had Christopher's employer followed safe trench protocols, he most likely would not have been crushed to death when the trench he was working in suddenly collapsed.
There are many things that employers can do to keep workers safe on the job, but the most important is to understand that safety is not separate from operations; it is central to what a company does. Safe operations should be part of a total quality management system that recognizes safe workers are more productive. An American Society of Safety Engineers study found that “as safety deteriorates, product quality and plant performance, based on internal and external measures, suffer. There is more scrap, more rework, and employees are less involved.”
Additionally, unsafe work conditions are expensive: from higher workers compensation insurance rates to lost employee time, employers lose when their operations are not safe. OSHA provides training and assistance for small employers about how to protect themselves and their employees.
This Workers’ Memorial Week, let’s not simply remember the NH workers killed in 2017, let us commit to keeping our brothers and sisters safe at work. From construction (Christopher, George, Mark, John, David and William) to tree service work (Fred and Eric); for young workers (Koty) and immigrant workers (Antonio and Jose), everyone plays a part. Slow down driving through work zones, clean up spills, use proper protective equipment and follow proper safety procedures, even when busy or tired. A safe workplace is a more productive workplace and skimping on safety does NOT save money. We can honor those who we lost by learning from their deaths. Every worker has a right to go home safe at the end of their shift.
Susi Nord is Co-Director of the New Hampshire Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.
New Hampshire Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health