The Electrical Worker online
April 2013

Hill: Safe Jobs Take Vigilance and Organizing
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On April 28, workers around the world will pause to remember those who have been injured or killed on the job as Workers Memorial Day is commemorated with vigils and ceremonies held under the slogan, "Remember the Dead — Fight Like Hell for the Living."

In February, International President Edwin D. Hill addressed that long fight for the living in a keynote address to the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Safety Conference, attended by union members, health care professionals and political leaders.

Hill discussed the grave danger of being a lineman in turn-of-the-century America, epitomized by the on-the-job fatality of the union's first president, Henry Miller. Hill went on to discuss the hazards still faced by utility workers as they battle to restore power as climate change wreaks stronger, more frequent storms. Ironically, the February conference was originally scheduled earlier, but was sidelined by Hurricane Sandy.

"Safety on the job is achieved only through vigilance, hard work and the proper training, much of which is provided through joint apprenticeship training committees made up of union and management participants," Hill said.

Major gains have been won in reducing worker exposure to toxic substances and other dangers by action on the job or in state and federal legislatures, Hill said. But budget cuts are threatening to slow down or block further progress in industrial health and safety. Just as important a challenge, he said, is declining union density.

Using the example of high accident rates among the mostly nonunion workers who erect and maintain cell towers, Hill told conferees that a combination of organizing and governmental action is essential to keep workers safe on the job.

More than 100 cell tower climbers have died in falls between 2003 and 2011. The death rate for tower climbers is about 10 times that of construction workers. The vast majority of these workers are employed by nonunion subcontractors that erect towers for large telecom companies like AT&T.

Deaths of climbers have increased as consumer demand has climbed. The worst carnage was between 2006 and 2008 when the iPhone rollout caused a spike in phone traffic that AT&T had not anticipated and a major overhaul of the system was required.

"Where workers lack organizational protection or any collective power, government needs to be there for them," Hill said. "The labor movement slogan, 'An Injury to One is an Injury to All,' addresses the plight of all workers, whatever their pay grade, whatever the work they do, whatever their level of organization, whatever their citizenship status.

"This Workers Memorial Day," says Hill, IBEW members at all levels need to make a commitment to "fight for the living by intensifying our organizing efforts so that more workers — like the cell phone tower climbers whose labor we benefit from daily — are not sacrificed for the profits of industry."