Monday, 11 May 2009
Tomorrow - on Tuesday, May 12th – Tammy Miser will be in Buffalo to tell her brother’s story and talk about her non-profit United Support & Memorial For Workplace Fatalities (USMWF) organization at the Buffalo AFL-CIO Central Labor Council’s monthly meeting, which will observe its annual Workers Memorial Day event in order to focus the need on workers’ rights, workplace safety and the need for stricter laws and penalties for those companies that fail to keep employee safety first and foremost in their minds.
(BUFFALO) – Shawn Boone was at work at the Hayes Lemmerz aluminum automobile wheel manufacturing plant in Indiana in 2003 when something went horribly wrong.
Boone, 33, and a co-worker had gone into a furnace at the plant to relight it when an aluminum dust explosion occurred. In testimony delivered during a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor Hearing, Boone’s sister, Tammy Miser, recounted the moments thereafter: “Shawn and two co-workers decided to stick around to make sure everything was okay. Shawn’s back was towards the furnace. Some say he got up and started walking to the door (after a first blast), but a second blast occurred. He did not die instantly. He lied on the floor while aluminum dust burned through his skin and muscle tissue. It burnt his internal organs and took his eyesight. He was still conscious and asking for help. The company never bothered to call the family to let us know he was injured or there had been an explosion. We got a call from a friend. Shawn had no body hair or physical markings that would identify him. The doctors said his internal organs were burned upon repair and that was apparent by the black sludge they were pumping out of his body. (Our family took) him off life support and we watched my brother die before our very eyes. We watched him take his last breath. His last words were, ‘I am in a world of hurt.’”
Speaking to WNYLaborToday.com in a telephone interview, Miser - who has appeared on CBS-TV’s 60 Minutes program to tell her brother’s story to the Nation - said: “(Combustible aluminum dust fires) had happened at the plant before and the workers were told not to call the fire department because they were worried about OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration and their potential investigations and penalties). The company had let the fires burn out (in the past). The fire extinguishers the company had were not rated to handle those fires and some were not fully filled. The company eventually shut down.”
Shawn Boone’s death, like that of so many other workers, could have been prevented, according to an investigator’s report. The blast at the Indiana plant where he worked was caused by an accumulation of aluminum dust, according to a U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which stated the explosion and fire was caused by the ignition of fine-powdered aluminum in a dust collection system in which hazards were neither identified nor adequately addressed. The Federal Agency said the fire that took Boone’s life followed a classic syndrome called normalization of deviation, where companies come to accept as normal fires, leaks or so-called small explosions. It had been determined the Hayes Lemmerz company failed to investigate the smaller fires as abnormal situations needing correction or as warnings of potentially larger more destructive events. As a result, the Federal Agency stated it almost always finds that such behavior precedes a tragedy.
A year after her brother’s needless and tragic death, Miser founded the now five-year-old, non-profit organization, United Support & Memorial For Workplace Fatalities (www.usmwf.org), which is dedicated to restoring and revitalizing the quality of life for workers, their families and communities by promoting family involvement, transparency and fairness in the investigative systems, improving workplace protections and the workers compensation system, and placing a human face on workplace fatalities. The USMWF offers support, guidance and resources for family, friends and co-workers of individuals who have died from work-related causes, and provides leadership and research to mobilize efforts toward the realization of the promise of safe and healthy workplaces for all.
Despite her brother’s death and “after so many years of frustration,” Miser says she now is "starting to see some light” when it comes to addressing workplace deaths and what must be done to stop them from happening. “The things that need to happen usually do when you have a Union representing you,” she said. “I’m disgusted and hurt. Many could be saved them. It’s beyond negligent to expect these companies to do this on a voluntary basis. I believe in OSHA, but it’s failed miserably. OSHA does not investigate a workers’ death, it investigates the violation – which is absolutely ludicrous. The whole point of OSHA is to keep American Workers safe. Penalties need to be raised. For too long, far too many people humored us. However, the new Labor Secretary (Hilda Solis) is amazing. I had a good cry the other day. She’s for workers and their families and it’s time they acknowledge that we matter.”
Miser, meanwhile, also heaped praise on OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary Jordan Barab, who previously directed the safety and health program for AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) from 1982 to 1998, who gently pushed her to take the lead and take her brother’s story nationwide.
“He pushed me,” Miser laughed. “I hate politics, but he pushed me to get involved. He's been so supportive of the families and he got the ball rolling. Now, at OSHA, there seems to be more of a focus on people. Families are becoming more vocal and are bringing these important issues back to light. I knew I had to do (60 Minutes) and that I couldn’t say no. Now these (offending) companies are scared of us. They’re petrified.”
According to the USMWF’s web site, in 2005 the Federal DOL reported 4.2 million non-fatal injuries and illnesses in private industry, while in 2006, 5,703 U.S. workers were fatally injured on the job. The USMWF’s mission is to help strengthen the rights of workers and their families by way of providing information and education to family members, step by step, so they know what to do after a loss, provide scholarships for families to attend hearings/events that will protect and improve workers and their family’s rights; strengthen USMWF’s presence by furthering our family outreach services with initial contact and guidance, and continuing to enhance the USMWF's web site so that others may add their own tribute and contact other families with the same interest.
Meanwhile, Miser continues to chronicle worker deaths across the country on her Weekly Toll blog. “Before we started, there was no source for information. I really didn’t know what OSHA did. I really don’t want anyone else to go through what my family went through. That’s why we have become an advocate and are educating those who are impacted. We are also putting a human face on each incident. We’re seeing the same things over and over again,” said Miser, whose USMWF operates on $160,000 in grants from the Public Welfare Foundation.
Currently Miser and the USMWF are pushing for a Family Bill of Rights, which she would like implemented in the federal Protecting American Workers Act, which is being pushed for by U.S. Congressman George Miller of California, who happened to chair the hearing Miser testified at in Washington. “Again, these issues need to continue to be brought to light,” Miser said.
During the Buffalo AFL-CIO Central Labor Council meeting, WNYCOSH (Western New York Council on Occupational Safety & Health) Executive Director Roger Cook – who heads the non-profit group that not only provides grant-supported occupational safety training to various Unions and companies, but has also joined with the Buffalo AFL-CIO to form the Safety Committee, which acts as a forum to discuss occupational safety issues and an alliance for a safer workplace – plans to address the Protecting America’s Workers Act, and in the process call for Western New York’s Congressional Delegation and New York’s two U.S. Senators to co-sponsor and actively back it.
Written by Tom Campbell