Workers Memorial Day 2007, a day to remember those who have suffered and died on the job and to renew the fight for safe workplaces, will be observed by the Allegheny County Labor Council, in Pittsburgh, PA on Monday, April 30 at noon in Market Square. This ceremony will also commemorate the 100th anniversary of The Pittsburgh Survey, (1907-1908) the pioneering work of Crystal Eastman and others which investigated the horrendous living conditions of Pittsburgh’s working class. Leo W. Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers, whose leadership saw the enactment of the Westray Bill of the Criminal Code of Canada, which holds corporations criminally liable when workers are killed or injured, will be the keynote speaker. The Allegheny County Bell, symbolic of a worker whose untimely death may have saved many, will be struck to remember those who have died due to unsafe working conditions this past year in Western Pennsylvania.
Crystal Eastman, founder of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom and co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, came to Pittsburgh 100 years ago in 1907 and began an investigation of the labor conditions. Her report, Work Accidents and the Law, cataloged 526 workplace deaths that occurred in only 1 year in Allegheny County and highlighted the inadequacy of worker protection and compensation. This report was one of a 6 volume series that is known collectively as The Pittsburgh Survey, which examined life and labor in America’s 5th largest city, home to a massive exploited immigrant labor force. The progressive reforms this series called for were hindered by the oppressive power of Pittsburgh’s industrialists and its political machine.
Unfortunately 100 years later in 2007, workers still face many obstacles to achieving a safe workplace. The Bush administration, acting on behalf of corporate interests has moved to roll back and weaken existing worker protections. It has the worst record on safety rules in OSHA’s entire history, issuing no new significant rules during its first term. In 2006, as a result of the Sago mine disaster, the number of coalmine deaths doubled, with 47 coal miners killed on the job. After withdrawing dozens of needed safety rules under development in 2001, the Bush administration now is being compelled to issue stronger mine safety protections. Since Bush took office, there have been repeated attempts at slashing funding for OSHA, MSHA and NIOSH and since 2001 OSHA’s budget has been cut by $25.4 million.
OSHA lacks the resources to protect the 100 million workers under its jurisdiction. With its only 900 inspectors, it would take 110 years for OSHA to visit every worksite under its jurisdiction. The number of hours spent per OSHA inspection continues to decrease and the number of cases “downgraded” to less serious violations is rising. Penalties for serious violations remain low and are routinely reduced through a process called abatement. The killing of a worker through the “willful” violation of a safety law is a misdemeanor, with a maximum sentence of 6 months in jail. In the 20 years between 1982 and 2002, only 1700 out of 170,000 workplace fatalities were deemed “willful”. OSHA declined to seek prosecution in 93% of these 1700 “willful” violations and less than 20 of these “willful” violators ever were imprisoned.
Each year, approximately 4.2 million workers are injured, over 5000 are killed and another 50,000 die due to occupational exposure. American workers need a strong OSHA and MSHA that puts workers, not employers, first and protects health and safety not corporate interests. Crystal Eastman’s pioneering work in Allegheny County 100 years ago was an important landmark in this ongoing struggle for workplace health and safety. Workers’ Memorial Day 2007 in Pittsburgh PA, will celebrate her important contribution to workplace safety, honor those who have lost their lives while on the job in western PA, and promote the health and safety of all workers.
Donna Puleio Spadaro, MD
Allegheny County Labor Council Workers’ Memorial Day Committee
The author’s brother, Gary Puleio, fell 25 feet from a concrete tower and was killed on August 15, 2001. After admitting no wrongdoing, the company which had informally settled multiple serious violations only months before Gary was killed, paid a $6000 fine.