BY KURT PETERMEYER
In August 2021, Layton Ellison and Eli Babb headed to work like they did many times before. After a storm knocked out power in Adger, a power transmission restoration company assigned the two 19-year-old electrical apprentices to help restore power. As they worked on a downed power line, both suffered fatal electrocutions.
An investigation later found that, had their employer ensured required safety precautions for electrical work were in place, Ellison and Babb would have returned home at the end of their workday.
Each year, thousands of workers of all ages die needlessly — leaving families, friends and communities to grieve — when required safety and health standards are ignored. In 2020, about 5,000 workers died in the U.S. in work-related deaths, including many who fell victim to workplace exposure to COVID-19. Tens of thousands more die of work-related diseases.
On average, 13 workers die each day in the U.S. In Alabama alone, 85 workers lost their lives in 2020.
The wounds suffered by those left behind are deepened by the reality that most, if not all, of these workplace deaths were avoidable – if only employers had established and ensured that appropriate safety precautions are followed.
Each year, on April 28 on Workers Memorial Day, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration and workplace safety advocates across the nation remember those whose lives ended because of the work they did.
The COVID-19 pandemic made going to work riskier than ever before, particularly in industries where people — often low-wage workers, many of whom are women and people of color — performed essential work to protect us and ensure our well-being. Those in industries such as healthcare, meatpacking, public transportation, retail, and food service risked — and many lost — their lives to provide critical services to others and to support themselves and their families.
This day allows us to mourn the loss of these workers and how their absence affects those who shared their lives. They were our family members, our friends, our co-workers and our neighbors. We are diminished by their deaths.
Workers Memorial Day reminds us that, like life, workplace safety and health must never be taken for granted. These tragedies and the causes should inspire us all to demand that workplace safety is a fundamental right and must never be an afterthought.
We must strive to ensure safety and health standards are in place and that they are understood and followed by employers and workers alike. Workers have the right to safe and healthful workplaces, and employers have the legal obligation to ensure that they provide them.
OSHA professionals work every day to assist employers across the nation in their efforts to provide a safe and healthful workplace. Our compliance assistance outreach helps businesses employing more than 1.3 million U.S. workers nationwide to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses. Through strategic alliances with large employers, trade associations, organized labor and our Voluntary Protection Programs, we help to empower businesses to employ customized safety and health approaches and make meaningful and substantial improvements.
As of March 22, 2022, there were 31 Voluntary Protection Program participants in Alabama. Injury and illness data collected at VPP sites shows that — on average – injury and illness rates at these locations are about 50 percent or lower than the national averages for their industries.
At the national level, OSHA maintains federal standards for workplace safety, including specific regulations based upon common industry risks and workplace hazards. In response to the pandemic, the agency implemented temporary standards to protect the most vulnerable workers and worked with specific industries to combat the spread of the virus.
Currently, OSHA is developing an infectious disease standard that will protect workers from airborne infectious diseases, as well other viruses that exist today and those we may face.
Workers are the backbone of our national economy. In the last two years, we learned how America’s society and culture depend on people who go to work and how we should never take for granted those willing to work at difficult and, sometimes dangerous, jobs. We at OSHA know we must do more to ensure we help protect every worker and listen to their concerns for safety, regardless of skin color, language spoken, citizenship status, gender or age.
We must do more to compel our nation’s employers to commit themselves to protect their workers’ safety and health, no matter the cost. And we must hold those employers who choose profit over people’s safety accountable for their inactions to the fullest extent the law allows.
As we mark another Workers Memorial Day, remember that no worker should ever have to risk their life in exchange for their paycheck. Also remember that each of us has a role to play in making the workplace safe. We owe Layton Ellison and Eli Babb, and the tens of thousands of others we honor today, at least that much.
Kurt A. Petermeyer is the Regional Administrator for the Southeast Region of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He has been supporting the advancement of worker safety and health and worker rights in OSHA since 1996.