Every year we approach Workers’ Memorial Day with mixed feelings. As a law firm that has represented tens of thousands of injured workers over the last 30 plus years, we certainly understand the need for this day and are glad for the recognition of the fallen. But there’s another side of us too – a side that questions why, after so many years, there are still so many on-the-job injuries and deaths.
So where are these injuries and deaths coming from?
Let’s look at the facts, as reported by the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) program conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor. A preliminary total of 4,547 fatal work injuries were recorded in the United States in 2010. (Final 2010 CFOI data will be released this spring.) While fatality rates in some job sectors such as private construction declined, other job sectors such as private mining showed large increases. To be specific, 2010 work-related fatalities were up 74 percent in the private mining sector and were also sharply higher both in mining activities other than oil and gas (up 110 percent) and in support activities for mining (up 71 percent).
While some disasters like the Upper Big Branch mining disaster (29 fatalities) and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion (11 fatalities) get our attention, the vast majority of workplace fatalities and injuries occur outside the media spotlight.
Consider the issue of asbestos exposure. Thought by many today to be a workplace issue of the past, asbestos diseases such as mesothelioma continue to quietly cause 3000 deaths per year in the United States alone. Since the latency period of asbestos diseases is so long (20 years or more), not everyone who develops a cancer like mesothelioma realizes that the cause is workplace exposure. Yet the bold truth is that asbestos was, and is, still at the top of the list of causes for work-related death and injury, even if it does not make the official CFOI roster.
While we decry the blatant and avoidable workplace injuries caused today by sloppy management and unsafe systems and machinery, we also don’t want to forget the stealth workplace killer, asbestos. Not only is it the cause of deaths today due to exposure decades ago, asbestos is still being imported into the United States for use in construction materials. And the men and women working with those construction materials today will be the work-related fatalities decades to come.
A complete U.S. ban on asbestos would go a long way to prevent future asbestos-related diseases and reduce the number of men and women we honor on Workers Memorial Day.