Workers Memorial Day: The High Cost of Doing Business

Monday, April 28th was Workers’ Memorial Day, IMG_7964a national event organized each year to remember workers who have been injured or killed on the job. Two events were held in the Bay Area, one in San Jose and another in the heart of Concord. Approximately 100 workers from every imaginable profession marched from the Concord BART to Todos Santos Park at about 5 PM, chanting and carrying signs in order to raise awareness to an ongoing cost of lives in exchange for profits. Several deceased workers were memorialized, their photos adorning some of the signs carried by family members and friends.

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Injured workers, as well as the friends and family members of workers who have been killed on the job, spoke in sometimes emotional tones about the sacrifices of workers who woke up in the morning, kissed their families good bye and never returned home. One employee, who survived the near loss of his arm, returned to work only to lose a co-worker and close friend soon after, killed under the same circumstances since the company failed to make any safety corrections to the hazardous equipment and procedures.

Workers Memorial Day Speakers

IMG_7960One speaker talked about a situation in which an employer picked up several Hispanic day laborers promising a little landscape work, only to get to the job site to find palm trees over 20 feet high which needed to be lifted into holes in the ground. The workers struggled to move one tree and then had to inform the employer that it could not be done without appropriate equipment or more manpower. The wage being paid on that job was $12 an hour. The risk was to be injured for a lifetime.

Speakers spoke about insufficient training or safety warnings. BART employees shared the experiences of employees who were forced to work under the controversial “simple approval” protocol where ultimately safety is “on you” and at your own discretion.

In a recent ruling by Cal-OSHA, BART was found guilty of serious and willful safety violations, handing down the most severe penalty allowed. On April 17th, the state regulators slammed BART for safety violations related to the deaths of two workers hit by a train in October of 2013, in Walnut Creek and fined the transit agency nearly ¼ million dollars.

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The state’s top safety agency (previously staffed by only 8 inspectors for all of California but now improved to 16) determined that the victims were not “qualified” to perform work near energized third rails. One was a manager working in place of a striking worker and one was a contractor. BART employees had moved to strike after contract negotiations completely broke down, with the lead negotiator taking a vacation to Disneyland amidst a negotiations table that had little or no movement. Some of the issues on the table involved safety and employees finally determined they had to walk out to have BART get serious. Nothing else was working. Employees warned that managers and temps would be ill equipped to fill in for them during the walk out. But BART administration disagreed. And so two people died, although this was far from the only time BART employees have suffered death while in the performance of their duties.

BART is now revamping policies and procedures and promises improvements while warning the public that this could cost riders some additional delays. Really?? How many people should die before a few people just get up 5 minutes earlier?? One is considered an inconvenience; the other is an entire lifetime without a mother or a father.

Investigators also found that the high-ranking transportation manager training another employee to drive the train that struck the two men was seated in a passenger car where he could not view the track ahead, as required. The train was also traveling at speeds upwards of 60 miles an hour while a speed of 25 miles per hour is required when safety inspections are taking place near the tracks.

The third violation involved the controversial “simple approval” protocol, which put the onus for trackside workers’ safety on those individuals. State regulators said that protocol was “inadequate” to prevent accidents like this and “not followed.”

Thursday’s fine is the largest levied by Cal-OSHA since January 2013, when regulators docked Chevron almost $1 million for the Aug. 6, 2012, fire at its Richmond refinery for an accident which included a vapor cloud. The smoke plume sent 15,000 Bay Area residents to hospitals, and endangered 19 employees. Replacing aging, corroded pipes with safer corrosion-resistant material would almost certainly have prevented the rupture. Our refineries are old, and it’s time for the many years of extreme profits to address safety issues to keep our communities and employees safer.

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Living in such a heavily chemical industrialized area as Contra Costa and Solano, with 11 refineries within our proximity, we need to ask our leaders step out of the bureaucratic stalemate and pledge to do better in the name of workers and residents. It shouldn’t take an act of congress or more regulation, but unfortunately it does. Big money creates pressure on legislative bodies and when it comes to money fights, we are destined to loose unless we work organize and pool our resources and our efforts. We are working families, struggling to stay alive against the giant machines and giant resources.

Art Pulaski, chief officer of California Labor Federation, representing 2.1 million members of manufacturing, transportation, construction, service and public sector unions, vowed to continue to unite workers and push further in the struggle to keep all workers safe so they can go home to their families at the end of the day.

Senator Mark DeSaulnier spoke to the refinery events that have contributed to the deaths of 4 workers at TOSCO, even after another death preceded that event, but the employer did not make any safety adjustments, while filing an appeal.

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Many speakers spoke to the loophole in OSHA regulations that allows employers to skirt changes if they file an appeal. This is a tactic that is commonly used to avoid making changes, even with the overwhelming risk that employees would be required to work under. The Senator expressed the enormous burden to have been aware of the first death and to not have pressed TOSCO to do necessary safety changes because the appeal was pending, and the law allowed it.

Those lessons have been extremely expensive to working families while profit margins of the huge corporations are prioritized over lives. He spoke about the good business sense it makes to avoid injury and death to workers, and that the prevention of workplace hazards along with the need to press forward with legislative actions, will create the safe environments, that some businesses choose to ignore.

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There are several measures currently in the state legislature that improve the outlook for workers and clearly we, as responsible communities, should endorse rules that make safety a higher priority. Among them are AB 1634 which closes the loophole to ignore OSHA identified hazards during an appeal process, and AB 1897, Protecting Workers in the New Subcontracted Economy.

Hopefully, this time Governor Brown will agree.

Safety over profits.  It makes good business sense.

IMG_7929WORKSAFE, a major organizer of the annual event, along with Contra Costa County and Solano County Central Labor Councils, are working hard to address these issues in the workplace with employees who are facing obstacles to their own safety.

Employees with concerns are encouraged to contact them at [email protected] They recommend www.chemhat.org to get the goods about chemicals that are hazardous, precautions, and alternatives.

 

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Cheryll Grover says

    So true Edi. It sometimes isn’t popular to remind people that all the benefits of their jobs today are owed to blood shed by workers over the past 50 years, struggling to have a day off and not work every day.To have time off to be sick and still pay your bills. And part of the growing pains of freedom in America is to expect that employers, once aware of safety issues, have nowhere to hide to avoid responsibility. Responsibility to protect workers and allow the bread winners to stay alive for the benefit of their families. it is more popular sometimes to attack legislators and laws that require accountability, in the face of thousands of lives lost. That is backward and shameful.

  2. says

    I too was at the memorial and was equally moved by the stories of those that found that they were in far more dangerous working conditions than they imagined and the need for a culture of safety in the work place. Particularly heart retching was the story of the worker whose arm was mauled and the sad story of a new worker being killed at the same site shortly afterwards.

    One of the big functions of unions from the start was to demand and get more safety for their workers.