Each year on April 28th, United Way honors workers who have died or suffered on the job. But we do more than mourn those we have lost. We also keep their memory alive by continuing to push for safe and healthy workplaces for all workers.
Across the country, communities hold ceremonies, vigils, and marches to continue this fight. The AFL-CIO’s 2022 Death on the Job: The Latest Toll of Neglect report will be released next month, but last year’s report offers insights as well as data points. Every single day, 275 U.S. workers die from hazardous working conditions. The latest reporting shows that 5,333 U.S. workers died on the job in 2019. Another 95,000 died from occupational diseases like asthma, COPD, and cancer that year. But we know many injuries go unreported, so the numbers are likely higher.
It's worth noting that Latino and Black worker fatalities increased in 2019. AFL-CIO's report says workers of color are at greater risk of dying on the job than all workers. That's unacceptable, and part of the reason United Way is firmly committed to building equitable communities with partners like AFL-CIO.
It's also unacceptable that 8.1 million public sector employees -- workers in state and local governments, for example -- lack adequate safety protections through OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Act). As a result of that lack of protection, their injury and illness rates are 64% higher than employees in the private sector. Violations against workplace safety are too weakly penalized, and workplace violence is the third-leading cause of death on the job.
Behind these statistics are parents, siblings, friends, and community members.. Every person deserves to work in an environment where they are treated with dignity and respect, where their input and knowledge are valued, and where they are seen as more than their productive output and physical presence. Families deserve to feel assured that their loved ones are safe at work.
COVID-19 has put many workers -- including high percentages of lower-paid, hourly workers, who are often people of color -- in the position of having to come to work while sick, to put food on the table or make rent. Many workers have to choose on or the other.
Even though OSHA has been law for 50+ years, too many workers are still at risk.
There is a need for more capacity-building and holistic improvements to avoid preventable injuries and deaths, with workers' voices in the mix. Workers have a right to healthy and safe working conditions. We take the time to remember and grieve, but also hope and fight for a better future, thanks to the tireless efforts of members of the labor movement, with whom United Way has long partnered.
Workers Memorial Day was first observed in the U.S. in 1989, as part of a larger push to normalize workplaces where workers didn't have to worry about their wellbeing. There is still much work to be done on that front.