Workers Memorial Day: Renewing the Fight for Safe, Healthy Workplaces

Today is Workers Memorial Day, an annual day of remembrance for those who have been killed, injured, or made sick at work. We deserve a safe and healthful workplace — all of us, regardless of where we work. We are cross posting SEIU Health and Safety Director Mark Catlin’s piece about Workers Memorial Day from the SEIU Blog. Please read it and share it with your co-workers, friends, and family.

BY MARK CATLIN, SEIU HEALTH AND SAFETY DIRECTOR

Today, April 28, we observe Workers Memorial Day to remember those who have suffered and died on the job, been injured or made sick because of workplace hazards. On this solemn day, we also commit to renew our fight for safer and healthier workplaces for all workers.

Our thoughts remain with 1199SEIU member Evelyn Lynch, a 70-year-old registered nurse, who was assaulted on her job in New York City in February and remains in a coma. And we grieve for two nurses, both stabbed while at work on Easter Sunday. Both nurses are members of SEIU Local 721 in California.

Each year, more than 100,000 SEIU members, about one in 20, are injured or made sick by dangerous workplace hazards. These workers and their families and friends quietly bear the burden of these injuries and suffer out of the public eye.

In 1970, Congress, in passing the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), established that all workers have a right to a “safe and healthy workplace.” Congress also determined that employers have the “primary responsibility” to provide workplaces “free of recognized hazards.”

Many SEIU members work in industries with high rates of injuries–especially our 1 million members working in healthcare. Healthcare workers are more likely to suffer back injuries than construction workers, mainly from patient handing activities. Other hazards faced by SEIU members include workplace violence, needlestick injuries and exposure to chemicals and infectious diseases.

Despite these risks, many employers fail to meet their legal responsibility to provide workplaces “free of recognized hazards,” but rely on safety programs that require workers to avoid hazards and then blame them for failing to do so when they are injured.

SEIU members and their local unions have fought for healthier and safer workplaces for many decades. In the 1980s, SEIU fought for and won contract protections against asbestos exposure in schools and helped pass federal legislation to protect workers and the public from this cancer-causing material.

In the mid-1980s, SEIU Healthcare members in California began a campaign for protection against HIV and hepatitis B exposure that resulted in OSHA passing its “Bloodborne Pathogens Standard” in 1991, which greatly improved worker safety. After that, SEIU led a fight for safer needles, which was won in 2001 with Congress passing a law requiring the use of safer needles and other medical devices and the inclusion of front-line workers in evaluating these devices.

SEIU members and locals continue fighting for safer and healthier workplaces by negotiating health and safety contract language and pushing employers to eliminate hazards. SEIU continues to fight for state and federal laws and regulations to protect workers, recently helping to win safe patient handling legislation in New York and a workplace violence prevention law in Maryland.

In February, SEIU Local 121RN and the SEIU Nurse Alliance of California petitioned Cal/OSHA, the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, for an enforceable Healthcare Provider Workplace Violence Prevention Standard. I encourage you to visit their websitesign their petition and support their campaign.

SEIU members: check with your local union to find out how you can help improve health and safety in your workplace. Join your local Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH). COSH groups are private, nonprofit coalitions of labor unions, health and technical professionals and others interested in promoting and advocating for worker health and safety.

So take a moment today to pause to remember all workers injured on the job, attend a Workers Memorial Day event in your area and, most importantly, make a commitment to join efforts for safe and healthy workplaces for all workers.


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