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On Workers Memorial Day, Activists Remember Victims, Step Up Fight for Living


April 25, 2013


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For Second District Vice President Frank Carroll, Workers Memorial Day is not just another day on the calendar.

On April 3, 1987, the then-business manager of Bridgeport, Conn., Local 488 received a call no union leader wants to get.

The L’Ambiance Palace, a 16-story residential building under construction, had collapsed, killing 28 members of the trades, including Donald Emanuel, a Local 488 electrician. One of the victims was only 17 years old, an Ironworkers’ son, says Carroll.

It was one of the nation’s worst construction accidents, one which led to the banning of the “lift-slab” construction method, under which concrete floors are poured on the ground and lifted into place by construction cranes onto an I-beam skeleton.

To honor those who have lost their lives as a result of job-related illness or injury, dozens of countries around world have designated April 28 as Workers Memorial Day.

While the Bridgeport disaster led to some important regulatory reform in Connecticut, the reality is that workplace fatalities remain all too high due to lax regulation and dishonest employers who cut corners on safety to make an extra buck.   

The April 17 disaster in West, Texas, is a stark reminder of the importance of the continued fight for workers’ safety. The explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. killed 14, injured more than 160 workers and community residents and destroyed dozens of buildings neighboring the facility.

As labor journalist Mike Elk points out in a Washington Post column, the plant was a disaster waiting to happen.

The plant had 1,350 times the legally allowed amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, yet hadn’t informed the Department of Homeland Security of the danger. Likewise, the fertilizer plant did not have sprinklers, shut-off valves, fire alarms or legally required blast walls, all of which could have prevented the catastrophic damage done. And there was little chance that regulators would learn about the problems without the company reporting them: Not only had the Occupational Safety and Health Administration not inspected the plant since 1985 but also, because of underfunding, OSHA can inspect plants like the one in West on average only once every 129 years.

Despite the scope of the disaster, coverage of the Texas explosion was overshadowed by the Boston Marathon bombings, which occurred two days earlier.

Writes Elk:

[D]eath in the workplace is a much more real possibility for almost all Americans than is death at the hands of a terrorist. In 2011, 4,609 Americans were killed in workplace accidents while only 17 Americans died at the hands of terrorists — about the same number as were crushed to death by their televisions or furniture … With so many lives at stake, it is the duty of the media to, at the very least, dedicate as much reporting to West, Texas, as we do Boston.

This is why it is more important than ever that the labor movement and all those concerned about keeping working people safe fight for stronger regulations and a crackdown on employers like the owner of the Texas fertilizer plant, says IBEW International President Hill:

If the Texas fertilizer plant had been union, workers could have blown the whistle on its unsafe practices without fear of retaliation by the boss.  On this Workers Memorial Day, let’s remember that one of our top jobs as union members is to fight for safe working conditions. It’s a commitment we must all take seriously.


Photo used under a Creative Commons License from Flickr user openmediaboston