Friday, April 26, 2013

From West, Texas to Bangladesh

Workers’ Memorial Day, on Sunday, April 28, is an international day of remembrance, mourning and action for workers killed, disabled or injured on the job. With the West, Texas tragedy followed so closely by the collapse of an eight-floor building in Bangladesh, Workers’ Memorial Day has taken on increased significance this year.

The Economic Policy Institute posted a thoughtful story about how the two tragedies tie into Workers’ Memorial Day, also called the International Commemoration Day for Dead and Injured. But their story reminded us why unions are so essential. At a time when the federal government can’t afford to inspect every workplace in a timely fashion, most corporations are not going to go out of their way to make workers’ jobs safer.
Unions are among the only groups actively fighting for safer work environments, and not just for their members. Unions fight for safer workplaces for everyone. From the Economic Policy Institute:

If you think we can rely on businesses to self-regulate, think again. West Fertilizer, the small business that blew up and killed fourteen people in Texas last week, declared itself safe and estimated the chance of a catastrophic explosion at zero. They needed someone with authority and the power to change behavior to look over their shoulder, to look out for the workers and first responders who were most at risk, and to look out for the school children whose schools were within the blast radius. But no agency had or exercised that authority.

As a society, we need to pay more attention to the safety and health of our workers. Nearly 5,000 workers were killed on the job in the United States in 2011, and an estimated 50,000 or more died from illness or disease they contracted from on-the-job hazards such as breathing chlorine fumes or periacetic acid and exposure to silica dust, asbestos, beryllium and hundreds of other hazardous substances. The cost of these illnesses and deaths is about $250 billion—more than the cost of all cancers. Inadequate regulation kills workers, and it costs our economy plenty.

Workers Memorial Day is Sunday, April 28, and I hope you’ll take a moment to think about the tragedies in Bangladesh and Texas. Take a moment to think about what kind of a country you want and which problem you think is more serious, that regulations kill jobs or that unregulated work kills workers.