When Damar Hamlin – safety for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills – suffered a cardiac arrest following a tackle during a game in January, it became a national story overnight. Fans, teammates and TV audiences watched in shock as the game was halted and paramedics resuscitated Hamlin on the field. Afterwards, hundreds of headlines scattered the media: some criticized the NFL for mistreating players, some took aim at the game of football itself and others noted the inherent dangers of being a professional athlete in a contact sport where violent collisions are inevitable. Most notable, however, was how many of these conversations centered around putting Hamlin’s health above all other concerns.
Seen through the lens of occupational safety and health, Hamlin is yet another worker who was injured and almost lost his life on the job. That’s a story we’re unfortunately very familiar with. Statistically, Hamlin wasn’t the only worker to suffer a life-threatening on-the-job injury that day; he was the one we heard about, because his job is broadcast to millions of people. Thankfully, Hamlin was successfully resuscitated and will make a full recovery in time. But that fact shouldn’t end the conversation, because this incident underscores a long-standing problem that extends beyond the NFL – that it’s all-too-rare when the public hears about what happens to workers on the job.
In 2021, nearly 5,200 workers around the U.S. died of on-the-job injuries and illnesses. Nearly 1,000 of those men and women worked in the construction industry, but their stories rarely end up as national news. And the non-union workers injured in these incidents often don’t have access to the health benefits and quality care they need to recover. We must use the momentum around this incident to continue our fight for safety and health protections for every single worker. That includes putting safety and health front and center, as it was in those critical moments when Damar Hamlin’s life was in danger.
At the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) and the Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund of North America (LHSFNA), we know that having someone die on the job is the single worst thing that can happen on any worksite. And we know that when traumatic events do occur, the workers who witnessed it also need support and compassion. Industry data shows that in 2021, the construction industry saw a decline in on-the-job deaths for the third year in a row, bringing us to the lowest level in five years. That’s something to celebrate, but now is not the time to let our guard down. The projects and jobs from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will keep LIUNA members and signatory contractors busy for years to come. We’ve made significant progress fighting for workers’ rights and protections, but as long as injuries and fatalities are still occurring, companies like Amazon and Starbucks are blocking unionization efforts and states like Indiana are pushing to repeal prevailing wage laws, our job is not done.
We’re at a unique moment in history: the highest union approval rate in decades, a surplus of openings in the construction industry and a brighter spotlight than ever being put onto occupational safety and health. We at LIUNA and the LHSFNA will continue to ensure our Brothers and Sisters can earn strong, family-supporting wages without risking their well-being in the process.