What are we waiting for? Protecting Workers From Silent Killers

No one should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood, because a nation built on the dignity of work must provide safe working conditions for its people.  Every year, on Workers’ Memorial Day, we remember those who have been killed, hurt, or made sick by their jobs, and renew our commitment to the safety and health of every worker.

As President Obama put it in the proclamation he issued today: “We must never accept that injury, illness or death is the cost of doing business.”

The good news is that we have made historic strides in recent decades.  It’s always worth remembering that in 1970, the year OSHA was created, there were an estimated 14,000 workplace fatalities. That’s a staggering number. Think about it: it’s more than one life lost every hour of every day – day and night, weekends and holidays. But today, with a workforce twice as large, that number has dropped to 4,628 — the second lowest annual total since the Bureau of Labor Statistics first conducted the census of fatal injuries in 1992.

But frankly, that’s 4,628 too many.

Last week, I traveled with Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joe Main to Morgantown, W.Va., for a historic announcement. We released a final rule that will move us closer to ending black lung disease by limiting miners’ exposure to coal dust. At the NIOSH facility where we made the announcement, there was one dominant, abiding sound you could hear in the room: the click-click-click of oxygen tanks attached to miners who struggle to draw every breath.

When most Americans think about people dying at work, I think what they have in mind are dramatic, news-making industrial accidents like Upper Big Branch or the explosion at the West, Texas, fertilizer plant a year ago. But silent killers like coal dust and other chemical hazards are some of our most urgent workplace safety challenges.

That’s why we are working so hard to protect workers from the dangers of inhaling crystalline silica dust.  We are in the process of a comprehensive silica rulemaking process, engaging in a robust public comment period. And I believe, working with industry and other key stakeholders, we can complete this rule and save hundreds of lives each year.

In 1936, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins convened a national conference of experts to study silicosis.  In Secretary Perkins’ own words: “This report shows how silicosis occurs, where it occurs, and what the disease is.  And it makes recommendations for its practical control.  Above all, the report emphasizes that [if] these control measures [are] conscientiously adopted and applied…silicosis can be prevented.”

That was three quarters of a century ago.  What are we waiting for?

Today, on Workers’ Memorial Day, as we mourn those we’ve lost, let’s do everything in our power to protect those still with us.  In the words of Mother Jones: Let’s “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

Follow Secretary Perez on Twitter as @LaborSec, and join the conversation using #WorkersMemorialDay.


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