Workers’ Memorial Day

On September 11, 2001, almost 3,000 people died in the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the airliner crash in Pennsylvania. That tragedy is being compounded by the growing toll of cancer, lung disease and other illnesses related to the attack, particularly in the New York metro area, where first responders were exposed to a sickening mix of chemical and biological toxins. USA Today reported that “more than 9,000 claimants have been determined eligible for compensation of medical bills and other expenses,” and that 2,620 of the approved cases were cancer-related. This second wave of illness and death is taking place out of the public spotlight, but it is real and is causing suffering in thousands of families.

During the years since 9/11, a much larger wave of workplace deaths has been crashing down on American families without drawing much attention from the public or the media. Every year, more people are killed from injuries in the workplace than were killed on September 11, 2001. The number of fatal injuries has been as high as 5,840 but never lower than 4,551—this translates into roughly 65,000 unnecessary deaths resulting from negligence or the reckless indifference of employers who continue to send workers into unshored trenches, onto roofs without fall protection, into confined spaces filled with toxic gas, and into factories and mills with dangerous levels of explosive dust.

The families of these dead suffer just as much as the families of the 9/11 victims and many of them have the same message, “Never again!” Even though the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 says that employers have a duty to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards, the carnage continues, day in and day out. After 15 years of slow but steady declines, the trend was broken in 2009. There were more deaths on the job in 2014 than in any of the previous five years.

And like the hidden wave of cancer deaths and other illnesses that continue to bubble up from the cauldron of 9/11, an estimated 50,000 premature deaths occur every year from employees’ exposure to workplace toxins and agents of disease. There are so many chemicals in our workplaces whose dangers are either relatively unknown or simply unregulated that tens of thousands of workers are being made ill and killed, little by little, without any action to prevent it.

Congress is unlikely to give the Occupational Health and Safety Administration the resources it needs to prevent these deaths until the American people realize the size and seriousness of this problem. As a nation, we have made real progress in bringing down the number of fatal occupational injuries. The recent increases are worrisome and should be a call to action.