The Most Haunting Number

The following is a cross post of an essay made available to McClatchy-Tribune News Service:

Every day, 12 workers die on the job across America. As the nation’s Secretary of Labor, I am surrounded by numbers-about jobs, the labor market and about the economy more broadly.  But the number 12 stays with me. It is a haunting reminder of the hard working Americans we lose every day, often in the prime of their life, filled with the energy that we need to build a better world.

Secretary Solis delivers keynote address during OSHA Action Summit on Worker Safety and Health

Sheri Sangji was one of these Americans, so full of promise. She was a 23-year-old research assistant in a lab at the University of California at Los Angeles, looking forward to a career that would allow her to pursue her interests in chemistry, law and the rights of women and immigrants. One day, while performing an experiment with highly reactive chemicals, a flash fire ignited her clothes and skin, causing fatal burns. Sheri had not been properly trained in the handling of the chemical that set off the blaze. I later met her family, a loving and tight-knit group of people. The weight of their loss was nearly unbearable. I think about them every day.

To remember Sheri Sangji and all others who die on the job across our country, we observe Workers Memorial Day every April 28. Tomorrow, we remember families who have lost a loved one because of workplace injuries, and we pledge to continue fighting tirelessly to make sure that no worker trades a life for a livelihood.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the agency in my department that sets and enforces standards that ensure every American comes home at the end of a shift. In 1970, when President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which created the agency, 38 workers died every day.

Forty-one years later, we have gone from 38 to 12. This decline is the result of people working together, marshalling the combined efforts of private industry, government, trade unions and academia to create safe and healthful workplaces for every worker in America. It shows that it’s possible to save lives through common sense safety and health standards and strong enforcement of the law.

I believe that we can keep doing better. I will not let up until we do.

OSHA fall prevention campaign: Plan. Provide. Train.

That’s why this week I announced our new public outreach campaign to educate workers and employers about what they must do to prevent deadly falls in construction. Falls are the leading cause of worker fatalities in the construction industry-a sector that accounts for almost one in every five worker deaths in the country.

No matter how many times I meet with families like the Sangjis, it never gets easier. No words can ever adequately express my sorrow.

Yet, the strength of character I witness in almost every one of these meetings inspires me. It renews my passion for standing up for workers every day by leading this department in their honor. Almost universally, the single most important need that these bereaved families express is the goal of preventing another family from going through the same unspeakable suffering.

We are never prepared to say goodbye to the people we love, but we are even less so when we send our loved ones off for a day’s work. It is our duty to ensure that all workers and employers recognize the need to make safety a priority and to stand behind our firm conviction that workplace injuries and fatalities are entirely preventable.

Today, I appeal to everyone to carry that message to your families and communities. Speak up about your support for the fundamental right to a safe and healthful workplace. Share your stories.

Finally, take a moment to remember the workers who have been taken from us too soon.

Making a living shouldn’t include dying.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Gregg Stoerrle says:

    You mention to share our stories,well here is my story Ms Solis. I tried to keep workers safe when i blew the whistle on my employer after warning them for years and i got fired for it six weeks later.But the most unbeleivable point was on the day before i was fired my employer removed my lockout tag on a 5 ton 40ft sissor lift that i just locked out unsafe with a major steering problem that even the manufacturer has a recall out on and they sent this lift out on rent with no repairs made to the steering.The manufacturer even stated that the truck driver loading it in that condition was in danger.OSHA has every piece of documentation that this employer knowingly gambled with workers lives by sending out this lift in that condition.OSHA even has pictures of the lockout tag on the lift that has my company i.d,date,problem listed on the tag.So i report this to OSHA and my employer lies to OSHA and then conspires to lie to OSHA Investigators and the reason i uncovered this was from an OSHA offical in OSHA’s office who risked his career to provide me inside information that it was obvious that OSHA knew they were lieing.
    I then used that information on 14 diffrent timelined date to trip them up and it worked perfectly where on six of those dates they faxed me documentation that hung themselves with cover sheets ,dates,names on them.This is a slam dunk violation if i ever seen one but instead DOL attacked us whistleblowers in this case,why?If i missed that problem with the steering i would have been fired on the spot and would have been completely justified.
    This is just part of our case where there have been accidents with this employers machines and one i witnessed personaly and was a direct result of neglegence on my employer for i trouble shot the problem and it was a miracle no one was killed!
    You know how hard it is to find a job after you become a whistleblower?
    I’M losing everything now for doing the right thing.
    I wish i did not survive this nightmare Ms Solis.

  2. The fall protection requirements for construction include mandatory safety training for affected workers, which gets overlooked quite often in the field.

  3. Andrew says:

    We have came from 38 to 12 but still this looks very high as these are everyday deaths. People really need to work together to make their workplace safe and secure. Every single person should understand his/her responsibility towards their workplace. Accidents can happen anywhere but if we can take precautions earlier we can actually avoid this.

  4. Susan says:

    Hey Greg,

    Your story is really interesting because I know for a fact that there are certain labor laws that protect whistle blowers for situations exactly like yours. However, I don’t know if OSHA would be the right organization to contact with respect to this matter.

    I’m sorry to hear about your unfortunate ordeal. Hopefully things turn out alright for you buddy. Just hang in there and keep trying.

    Good luck,

    Susan Dawson

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