Where Were You?

On April 23rd at about 5:30 p.m., a hundred or so members of various unions throughout the area marched to the Civic Center, accompanied by a bagpiper, the Peoria Fire Department and the Peoria Police Department. We were addressed by the Director of the Peoria Area OSHA Office, the business manager of IBEW Local 34, the business manager for Steamfitters Local 353, and one gentleman who read the names of the members of the armed forces from Illinois who died since we met last. Local 974 read the names of UAW members who died on the job in the past year. We were there to observe Workers Memorial Day, where were you?

Itís not hard to understand why you werenít there. We all have busy schedules. Some have small children to take care of, teenagers to ferry around to their seemingly endless list of activities and dinner to prepare. A number of people have to take care of or visit sick, aging parents and some people may have been tired after having been forced to work weekend overtime.

There are hundreds of reasons people didnít observe Workers Memorial Day, but there were 4,600 people who couldnít attend because they died on their job last year. Every day last year 13, people died because of injuries suffered on the job. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health estimates an additional 50,000 people die each year due to illnesses caused by work-related exposures to hazardous chemicals. This is not exactly the kind of holiday the folks at the Chamber of Commerce want working people to draw attention to, because it is flies in the face of their view of the current state of affairs.

Most working people donít even know about this special day or the monument to our fallen AFL-CIO brothers and sisters that sits just east of the Peoria City Hall. Workers Memorial Day is not a holiday in a traditional sense, because truthfully, who actually observes and remembers the real purpose of observing holidays such as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, just as long as we get our day off? Workers Memorial Day is when we in labor actually commemorate the lives of people who died on the job and that is the kind of attention that many would hope to avoid.

Our health and safety has become a political football, used to score points with those who feel the cost of making out jobs safe is too high. Iím certain that there are actions which could have been taken to prevent each and every work-related fatality last year, but werenít done. There is great concern in the Congress and statehouses all over the country about unjust burdens being piled on the ďjob creatorsĒ. It is said that there are too many government regulations holding back businesses from making more money or hiring more people. Those were the same arguments used 40 years ago when OSHA was born.

Is your workplace too safe? Thatís what the people pushing the anti-regulation agenda think as they sit in their carpeted, air-conditioned offices, never mind that production workers are 11 times more likely to be injured on the job. It took more than 10 years to get an ergonomic standard and two weeks to lose it. The vast majority of back, elbow, shoulder and neck injuries would have been addressed by the Ergonomic Standard, but it was killed by the same anti-regulation proponents you hear today. What we get instead of regulation are employers focused on earplugs, safety glasses, bump caps/hard hats, vests, face shields, effectively placing you in a suit of armor rather than focusing on reducing or elimination exposure to hazards.

When people running for office use catchy phrases like, ďI want to take our country backĒ. Where do you think they want to go? Back to pre-OSHA days, when over 14,000 workers, 38 per day, died on the job? I donít want to go back to those times, do you?

Catchy phrases and hot-button issues have successfully been used to turn people into single-issue voters for years and years. God, guns, gays and immigration have enjoyed more recent success in convincing working people to vote against their own interests, so add government regulation to that list.

Dumbing issues down to the lowest common denominator has been especially effective in health and safety. Programs that focus attention onto over-simplistic concepts of injury prevention like eyes on path, mind on task, be aware of pinch points and stay out of the line of fire do not address a single hazard. All programs like that accomplish is to place the employerís legal obligation of providing a safe and healthy workplace squarely on you.

As the November General Election gets closer, listen to what the candidates have to say and support the ones who will support you. You have a right to a safe and healthy workplace. You have a right to know that the air you breathe and the water you drink will not ham you. You have the right to get involved, to become vocal about issues that concern you, but donít become blind to the fact that you have to earn a living somewhere and no job is worth dying over.

At work, you have a vested interest in making sure you and your brothers and sisters address any and all health and safety issues. You have the contractual obligation to do so under Section 8.3 Stage one of the Safety Complaint procedure.

It is easy to understand that bringing such concerns is often difficult considering the threats and intimidation heaped on those who raise their hand or take action to correct workplace hazards. That is one of the principal advantages of having a union. We have processes and protections in place to work those issues out, but more powerful than that, we have each other.

We have to stand together when there is an issue, especially a health and safety issue, that needs to be addressed. Action against those who truly seek to make improvement for all cannot be tolerated. We have to choose our battles wisely, but act decisively when necessary. Call for your UAW Health and Safety Representative if problems you bring to managementís attention are not corrected to your satisfaction. Our Safety Complaint Process is effective, if we would just use it instead of the silly CI cards. If you choose not to say anything, not to address a problem, youíre just burying your head in the sand. Iíve got news for you, when your head is in the sand, thereís still a lot of you exposed.


Steve Mitchell