Every year, thousands of people in North America leave for work and never come home. Millions more come home, but they are sick or injured.
Preventable deaths and on-the-job accidents kill nearly 5,000 people every year in the U.S. according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and a recent report issued by the AFL-CIO found another 50,000 to 60,000 died annually from diseases caused by workplace injury and exposure to dangerous environments.
In Canada, just under 1,000 workers die from preventable accidents each year, according Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada.
Every year, April 28 has been set aside in the U.S. as Workers Memorial Day and in Canada as the Workers Mourning Day to mark this devastating loss.
“No job should be a death sentence. No one should have to risk their health, let alone their life, to provide for themselves and their family,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “Our members work with high voltages and in hazardous environments but every member has the right to come home whole.”
Workers Memorial Day is observed in more than 80 countries. At least 18, including Canada and the U.S., have passed legislation officially marking it as a national day of mourning and remembrance.
It was first commemorated by the AFL-CIO in 1970, the same year the Occupational Safety and Health and Mining Safety Acts were passed. The Canadian Labor Congress declared April 28 Workers Memorial Day in 1985 and Parliament made it a national day of mourning five years later.
This year, President Stephenson sent out a memo to every international vice president encouraging all locals to mark the day in some fashion and across North America they are responding.
Canadian locals are marking the day with work stoppages, moments of silence and commemorations.
Toronto Local 353 Treasurer Jeff Irons said members will be attending at least five ceremonies organized by labor councils in their jurisdiction in Toronto, Woodbridge, Durham, Lindsay and Barrie.
“It is about remembering the ones we’ve lost, but it’s also about the ones who were hurt or injured and are still with us but whose voices don’t get heard,” Irons said. “We have to speak for them and defend the Workers compensation system.”
Irons said he has encouraged all Local 353 members to safely take a pause from work at 11 a.m.
“Unfortunately, everyone knows someone who was injured, got sick or worse. Sad but true. We’ll all have someone to think about in that moment,” he said.
Irons said this year there is positive change worth celebrating. On Dec. 15, the Canadian parliament banned the use of asbestos nationwide.
“When you consider the number of lives lost just to asbestos, this is huge for the building trades and workers in general,” said First District International Vice President Bill Daniels. “When I was young, you saw it floating around everywhere. And that is not unique to Canada. It was through years of lobbying, including attention from the Day of Mourning, that we made this change.”
Victoria, B.C., Local 230 created a commercial about workplace safety that has been airing throughout the month across British Columbia. It focuses on workplace safety and urges every worker, no matter their job or their union status, to put it first.
“In British Columbia, construction workers have the highest injury and death rate. We want people to know, we matter,” said Local 230 Business Manager Phil Venoit. “Our message is that safety is priority No. 1 for the IBEW, and it should be for union and nonunion contractor alike.”
Members of Local 230 will be joining a procession to the provincial capitol building in Victoria, where union trades workers will deliver 100 caskets.
“We don’t know how many die each year because only some die on the job. Many more die quietly at home, from asbestosis or black lung or cancer, years after they last set foot on a construction site,” Venoit said. “However many it is, it’s a lot more than 100 people. This is just a symbol of the loss.”
Across the U.S., memorial events have been organized by the AFL-CIO. More than 50 cities are hosting events from San Francisco to New York, Detroit to Atlanta and the AFL-CIO has set up a searchable website to make it easy to find Workers Memorial Day events in the U.S.
New York City’s Building Trades Council has been marking the event for years and New York Local 3 Business Representative John Baker said Local 3 Business Manager and Chairman of the International Executive Council Christopher Erikson will be participating, starting with a memorial mass Thursday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Augusta, Ga., Local 1579 Business Manager Will Salter said he and other members of the local leadership will be at Augusta Commons Friday afternoon for a memorial event.
“I can’t say I’m looking forward to going, but it’s important we have this time and speak up for workers at risk,” Salter said
At a time when workplace protections are under threat in Washington D.C., IBEW Safety Department Director Dave Mullen says the message about workplace safety needs to reach politicians as well as workers.
“It’s important we fight for better safety laws but ultimately this comes down to us. We cannot rely on anyone looking out for our safety,” Mullen said. “During those moments of silence we should also recommit to keeping ourselves safe and looking out for one another.”