Each year, labor unions across the United States observe April 28th as Workers’ Memorial Day, in remembrance of workers who have died as a result of hazardous working conditions. It’s also the anniversary of the enactment of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970, which authorizes the federal OSHA agency to “assure employers provide safe and healthful conditions” for working people in the U.S.
According to Rich Templin of the Florida AFL-CIO, Workers’ Memorial Day is observed to commemorate the lives of fallen workers. But he says, it’s also a reminder to organize for better workplace safety and uplift workers’ rights. “Workers Memorial Day is about remembering those that have already paid the ultimate price to have a job, but it’s also geared towards looking towards the future and improving the situation so that we can prevent those injuries and deaths moving forward,” he told WMNF.
The Florida AFL-CIO is the state’s largest federation of labor unions, representing over 500 local unions, and over one million union members, retirees, and their families. For the last 31 years, its national affiliate has released an annual report titled Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, which details information about the state of workplace safety and health protections for U.S. workers.
According to the new report, more than 4,764 workers were killed on the job in 2020. An additional 120,000 workers died from occupational diseases. Black and Latino workers remain at greater risk for suffering serious injury, according to the report, which pulls data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In Florida alone, 275 workers died due to hazardous working conditions in 2020, with transportation accidents, falls, and exposure to harmful substances or environments shown as leading causes in the state. “Over the last 50 years, there has been significant progress toward improving working conditions and protecting workers from job injuries, illnesses and deaths,” the full report reads. “But more progress is needed.”
A lack of federal resources, agency budget cuts during the Trump administration, and a widespread underreporting of workplace injuries and fatalities, the labor federation says, have undermined worker safety — as have weak enforcement mechanisms and the laissez-faire attitude of some employers. “The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is woefully underfunded,” said Templin of the Florida AFL-CIO. “It’s understaffed, and, quite frankly, too many businesses fall through the cracks when it comes to following all of the procedures and guidelines to keep their workers safe.”
A local display of oversight falling through the cracks
The limitations of OSHA became painfully clear in the case of workers at a Tampa lead factory, owned by Gopher Resource. A Tampa Bay Times investigation published last year revealed that the plant, which recycles about 50,000 used car batteries a day, regularly exposed workers to air-lead levels that exceeded the federal limit in the furnace department.
According to the Times, more than a dozen current and former workers, all under the age of 60, suffered heart attacks, cardiac arrests or strokes in the past five years. One worker died of heart and kidney disease at 56 after working at the plant for more than 30 years. The federal OSHA agency, journalists wrote, “has repeatedly bungled the job at Gopher, allowing hazardous conditions to persist for years.”
National attention to worker safety
A day before Workers’ Memorial Day, on April 27th, the White House issued a proclamation on the day of remembrance that shared, in part, “We are committed to ensuring these jobs are safe and subject to high labor standards, including good wages, strong safety and health protections, and the free and fair choice to join or organize a union and collectively bargain with an employer. Through decades of organizing, negotiating, picketing, and protesting, labor unions secured vital workplace protections that union and non-union workers rely on today, and we are working to strengthen both unions and the workplace protections they provide.”
Concerns about safe working conditions, both before, but especially the pandemic, have been a primary driver of high-profile union drives at worksites owned by companies like Starbucks, Amazon, as well as last year’s massive wave of labor actions organized by and for frontline workers across the United States, including nurses, food service workers, airport workers, teachers, miners, and more.
Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls was fired from his job at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York early on in the pandemic, just days after leading a small walkout in protest of COVID-19 safety procedures. Two years later, his former job site, the JFK8 Amazon warehouse in New York, became the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the United States, through the dedicated organizing efforts of himself and a committee of Amazon workers.
Pushing for workplace safety reform in Florida
Florida labor has, for years, pushed state lawmakers to pass legislation to bolster workplace safety. There’s been a push by the statewide labor movement to create heat stress protections, for instance, for people who work outside, such as those who work in agriculture, roofing, and road maintenance.
During this year’s regular session, a state bill with bipartisan support that sought to accomplish as much ended up getting stalled in the Florida House. “There actually is a lot of business support for that measure,” said Templin, who added that the labor federation plans to continue to push for the same initiative next session.
Another priority of the Florida AFL-CIO is expanding workplace safety standards to the public sector, which is currently excluded from the federal OSHA agency, with the exception of firefighters and police. Although some states have their own agencies, laws, or other mechanisms to protect public sector workers, Florida does not.
According to Templin, basic safety requirements, tracking, and enforcement for the public sector were lost when former Florida Governor Jeb Bush dismantled Florida’s state Department of Labor in the early 2000s. “When it [the state department] was dissolved, they didn’t do anything to task any agency or entity of the state to develop those guidelines and enforce them.”
Last year, Florida Republicans rammed through legislation to have Florida withdraw from the federal OSHA, in a knee-jerk reaction to the agency’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates for workers. That bill, which called for creating a state OSHA program, was then signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis, who’s ardently opposed vaccine and mask mandates.
Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls wrote in a joint statement at the time that OSHA’s regulations were “onerous.” But as the Miami Herald reported in November, Simpson’s position was clearly motivated by personal bias. Simpson owns an asbestos cleanup company that was fined $25,200 after a worker fell on the job in 2014 and later died. A roofing company owned by another GOP lawmaker was reportedly fined nearly $50,000 for six incidents between 2011 and 2017, according to the Herald.
State OSHA programs currently exist in over 20 states, and must be approved by the federal OSHA. Standards of state OSHA agencies must be “at least as effective” as the rules of the federal OSHA. And many do offer coverage for public sector workers, as well as most who work in the private sector.
According to Templin, the timeline Republican lawmakers proposed for creating Florida’s state OSHA program last year was too short. And it would come at a high cost to Florida taxpayers. Still, as it is, Templin is aware of essentially no action on that initiative since DeSantis signed the bill into law last year.
From the rank-and-file
Bolstering worker protections is critically important not just to union staffers, but to the base of Florida’s labor movement as well, including unions’ rank-and-file. Kim Smith, a local field technician of 17 years, does fiber installation and repairs for Frontier Communications in Tampa.
She’s a rank-and-file member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 824, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Field technicians like herself, Smith said, face a number of hazardous conditions on the job that can lead to serious injury, ranging from inclement weather, to electrical dangers, animals in customers’ homes, and Florida’s blistering heat. “[In] Florida we have extreme heat conditions, where the heat index can reach triple digits,” Smith told WMNF. “I know one summer it reached 120 with the heat index. And we crawl through attics. We are in customers’ homes and businesses and whatnot. So you know, heat is a huge danger to those of us working out in the field.”
While Smith hasn’t suffered major injuries herself on the job, she did have a coworker who ended up having to leave the company due to a serious injury sustained during work hours. A fellow field technician was up in an attic running a line for a new customer when he asked his coworker, who was up in the attic with him, for a drill. The worker who requested the tool shifted his body slightly, and a board broke loose. He fell about 25 feet, said Smith, and suffered serious, permanent injuries.
Workers Memorial Day for her, she said, is a reminder of the “ultimate sacrifice” that many people have made with their labor. She added, it’s also a reminder, “that we should learn and grow from it, and make sure that the next generation — the next group of workers — don’t suffer the same thing.”
Smith would like to see a more robust, and quicker safety inspection process, so workers don’t have to wait an extended amount of time to see tangible improvement in their working conditions. She’d also like employers to take safety issues more seriously, and for there to be greater repercussions for those who fail to adequately ensure that workers are protected on the job. While some employers do make safety a priority, “there are a lot of other employers and companies that are unscrupulous,” she said. “They put their profit over people and that needs to change.”
Workplace safety is a priority for all workers, Smith said. Not just those with union representation. “All workers deserve dignity in the workplace and safety. And as working people, we have to push for that, and change the narrative where we’re inclusive of all working people, whether they’re union or not.”
You can find information about planned virtual and in-person Workers’ Memorial Day events taking place in the U.S. and across Florida on April 28, 2022 here.