Workplace catastrophes and death are all too common in the U.S. and Canada, though no one really knows the true number of people who, each year, are killed on the job or die due to hazardous exposures they encountered at work. It may be as high as 58,000. The number is estimated because so many work-induced illnesses take decades to incubate and claim their victims. By then, the cause of death is buried in a lifetime of contributory factors.
While the number is high, it has less social impact than it should because each death is a local tragedy, a fact that limits its national impact and obscures the nation’s epidemic. Even when covered in a timely fashion in the local media, a worker’s death is often portrayed as a random and isolated event, an unfortunate circumstance, the sad but inevitable by-product of work, itself.
Yet, as Mother Jones knew so well, if no worker’s death is to be in vain, it must help forge a safer future for all others. Even in their grief, the family and friends of a fallen worker advance this cause when they memorialize their loved one’s life and project the loss for all to see. Often, organizing such outreach is an additional sacrifice at a difficult time, but local unions can provide event facilities and co-workers can lend a hand with the local media and opinion leaders. Memorial pictures can buttress letters to the editor. Local and Congressional officials can be engaged.
While inviting a pause to acknowledge the terrible loss of life at work, Workers’ Memorial Day offers an occasion in which local tragedies take on new life in the ongoing struggle for safe jobs and secure careers. Like Mother Jones, we mourn, and we promise to “fight like hell” for safe work and safe careers.
Posters and other Workers’ Memorial Day materials are available on the AFL-CIO’s website: http://www.aflcio.org/Issues/Job-Safety/Workers-Memorial-Day.