Workers’ Memorial Day: A day to remember workers, and also their loved ones

by Ben Palmquist, NESRI

April 28 is Workers’ Memorial Day, a day when people are coming together around the country to remember those who have been killed on the job and to honor them by fighting for the living. That means fighting to fix the hazards exposed by workers’ deaths to protect the health, safety, and lives of other workers, and also making sure that the families and loved ones of workers killed on the job have the financial and emotional support they need to cope with workplace tragedies.

According to official numbers, some 4,628 workers were killed by occupational injuries or illnesses in 2012 in the United States, though this number vastly understates the human tragedy of work-related fatalities. As National COSH reports in its 2014 Preventable Deaths report, as many as 50,000 deaths from occupational diseases go unreported every year, and at least 700 work-related deaths each year could be prevented. Hundreds if not thousands of workers, in other words, are killed by employer negligence, lax health and safety standards, poor enforcement, inadequate health and safety training, and an economy that places more value on profits than on workers’ lives. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) itself admits that something is seriously wrong. According to Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels, “Worker injuries, illnesses and deaths should never be accepted as simply ‘the cost of doing business’. Even one death on the job is one too many.”

Beyond the numbers, the human toll of workplace fatalities is tragic and poorly understood. As Glenn Shor wrote last month on this blog, work-related fatalities are emotionally and financially devastating for workers’ families and loved ones, who are forced to bear their loss without adequate support. The effect of workers’ deaths on families is poorly documented and poorly understood, which leaves us with policies that do not meet families’ needs or protect their rights.

When a worker is killed on the job, his or her family faces a double financial hit: they lose that workers’ wages and also face significant costs to lay their loved one to rest. From state to state, workers’ compensation does not provide families with enough financial support: ongoing wage-replacement payments are often far too low to allow families to continue to meet their daily needs, and funeral payments typically do not cover the full cost of a funeral, much less families’ travel to the funeral and time off from work to handle affairs and grieve.

On top of financial struggles, families who are already suffering from the untimely loss of a loved one must also endure the emotional turmoil of questions and indignities brought on by inadequate government transparency and accountability. Unresponsive public agencies too often fail to hold employers accountable for worker safety following a fatality, communicate poorly with families, and do not provide families with enough opportunity to report on how the death has impacted them. On top of all this, families are often wracked with grief and unanswered questions, yet are not provided with access to mental health services that they might need to help them grapple with their loss.

By not providing adequate support, workers’ compensation and other agencies leave families to cope in isolation, but many people are finding ways to come together to support one another and to organize for policies to prevent workplace tragedies and meet the needs of those mourning lost loved ones. Many of these families have found support and common cause in United Support & Memorial for Workplace Fatalities (USMWF), an organization founded by and for the families of workers killed on the job. USMWF has just released the Family Bill of Rights, Volume 2, which explains the devastating impact of workers’ deaths on family members and establishes a set of rights that should be recognized for all families who lose a loved one on the job. These rights place a number of obligations on government agencies and employers:

  • Workers’ compensation must meet families’ full needs when a loved one dies from a work-related injury or disease. This includes the full cost of a funeral, including travel and family members’ time off from work, lost wages due to bereavement, and mental health services. Benefits must be paid to a worker’s parents if he or she does not have a spouse or dependents.
  • The Department of Labor (DOL) must be transparent and accountable to families. The DOL must communicate effectively with every worker’s family after a work-related fatality, and give them the opportunity to provide an impact statement on the death of their loved one.
  • OSHA must protect all workers’ safety without exception. OSHA should extend its regulations to public workers who are currently excluded from protections, require that all employers’ safety officers have proper training and credentials, and ensure that all evidence from workplace fatalities is preserved.
  • Delays in medical attention and reporting must be prohibited. Employers must never be allowed to delay emergency responders, and must notify OSHA of deaths in a timely manner.

On April 28 and throughout the week, workers and family members of those killed on the job are holding events around the country to honor lost workers and to fight for better health and safety protections and adequate support for families. On Workers’ Memorial Day and every other day, let us remember everyone who has been killed on the job. Let us honor their deaths by making sure that what killed them will never kill anyone else, and by ensuring that their loved ones have the support they need to cope with their tragedy and to live in dignity.

To find a Workers’ Memorial Day event in your area, visit one of the following pages:

Ben Palmquist is a Program Associate with NESRI’s Work with Dignity Program.