Washington — This year’s Workers’ Memorial Day, marked on April 28 each year to honor those who have lost their lives on the job, served as a poignant reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made by the many workers providing essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Centers for Disease Control (and Prevention) reports that more than 22,000 health care workers have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 70 have died,” Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a press release. “Meanwhile, thousands of workers in meat processing plants, grocery stores, prisons, nursing homes, postal facilities and other workplaces (are) falling ill and even dying.”
The Department of Labor issued a joint statement from Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia and acting OSHA administrator Loren Sweatt: “As we memorialize workers who have lost their lives, we are mindful of the U.S. Department of Labor’s important role in working with employers and workers to create a national culture of safety. We are dedicated to working diligently every day to keep American workers safe and healthy on the job.”
In lieu of traditional events to mark the day, the AFL-CIO called for a virtual candlelight vigil and recommended the use of online resources and social media to push for “stronger safety and health protections.” The labor federation’s president, Richard Trumka, also sent a letter to Scalia, calling for emergency temporary standards “to protect health care workers, first responders, essential workers and other workers returning to work from COVID-19 exposure and infection.” The letter includes a list of members who, the federation claims, died of COVID-19.
The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries canceled its in-person events at its headquarters and around the state, and encouraged all workplaces to participant in a moment of silence.
“We had no choice but to cancel this year’s ceremony,” Washington L&I Director Joel Sacks said a press release, “but it doesn’t diminish the importance of remembering fallen workers and continuing our efforts to reduce to zero the number of people who die in connection with their job.”
National Safety Council President and CEO Lorraine M. Martin urged business leaders to “commit to do more to protect the workers of tomorrow.” This includes ensuring protections for workers already on the job and those returning as the pandemic wanes. To help in this effort, NSC has launched SAFER: Safe Actions for Employee Returns, a nationwide task force that brings together Fortune 500 companies, safety organizations and public health experts.
“Every year on April 28 we observe Workers’ Memorial Day to remember and honor those who lost their lives on the job,” Martin said. “This year, our hearts are especially heavy as the safety of so many loved ones working on the front lines is impacted by this pandemic. I am calling on my fellow business leaders across the country to ask what more we can do to make sure our workers get home safely at the end of the day.
“We need to keep our workers safe today so we can have a healthy workforce when it comes time to return to our usual work environments and routines.”
Fatal workplace injuries totaled 5,250 in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is the highest total since 2007, when 5,657 workplace deaths were recorded.