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May 4, 2020

Workers’ Memorial Week: Anticipating risk, listening to workers crucial to save future lives

by: Anne McGinness Kearse

Over the course of last week, we explored how past work-related tragedies shaped and were often a catalyst for safety policies, many of which continue to protect workers to this day. We also examined the challenges and limitations that affect today’s workers – especially now as the world continues to find its way through this unprecedented pandemic. Now that Workers’ Memorial Week 2020 has come to a close, we’re reminded just how uncertain the future remains for workers.

While the idea of everyday workers being forced to perform crucial jobs without the resources they need to keep themselves and their loved ones safe is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it’s a problem that pre-dates COVID-19. Roughly 5,000 American workers die on the job each year from catastrophic injuries, such as electrocutions, falls, or being fatally struck by a piece of equipment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The CDC reports as many as  72,000 others succumb each year to work-related diseases, including mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer, leukemia, and other chronic diseases related to toxic exposure.

The good news: the hazards faced by workers are entirely within our control to minimize – if we choose to. We can prioritize workers’ lives over profits and penalize those who don’t. We can insist that lawmakers enhance worker protections to save lives. And we can take proactive steps today to anticipate the needs of tomorrow’s workers.

Anticipating safety risks

The International Labor Organization released a report last year titled Safety and Health at the Heart of the Future of Work: Building on 100 Years of Experience, in which the organization analyzed worker conditions from 1919 to 2019 and explored the outlook for years to come. “With new technologies, shifting demographics, climate change and different patterns of employment and work organization shaping the world of work, it has and will become more important than ever to anticipate new and emerging work-related safety and health risks,” the report found. “Anticipating risks is a crucial first step to effectively managing them and to building a preventative OSH culture in an ever-changing world.”

Technology is one particular area in need of further study, the report found. While advancements in robotics, automation and digitation have value in adding distance between workers and hazardous environments, questions regarding the potential impact and effect on the overall wellbeing of workers remain largely unanswered.

“The risks of integrating these new technologies into the workplace should be accounted for,” the report stated as it posed a multitude of questions for stakeholders to consider as advancements are made, including:

  • How can the burden of shift work, long hours of work, and sleep deficiency be decreased?
  • How can opportunities for positive physical and psychological work environments and a supportive organizational culture/climate be fostered?
  • What is the role of health promotion in the present and future world of work?
  • Can healthier work design, health promotion and better organizational practices improve the safety, health and well-being of workers?
  • What is the relation between a safety climate, job satisfaction and turnover?

Listening to workers & advocating for change 

While it’s crucial that business owners and others in power take an interest in worker protections, the fact that workers themselves should have a say in their own safety cannot be understated. The AFL-CIO released a report in September 2019, AFL-CIO Commission on the Future of Work and Unions, in which it said it wished to address the “fallacy that the future of work is something that will be done to workers instead of shaped by (them).”

“Any serious debate about the future of work must begin with the voices of workers and our unions,” the organization said.

Wondering how to go about taking safety into your own hands? Personally, I am proud to support the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH), the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) and other advocacy groups that make it their mission to spread awareness on issues affecting workers. You may also contact your Congressman to encourage them to pass legislation that benefits workers, and take the initiative to report potential hazards up the chain at your workplace. If you or a loved one was injured due to negligence, or developed a chronic illness after suffering work-related toxic exposure, litigation could also be an option to hold responsible parties accountable and help see to it that needed changes are made to protect other workers from harm. Those with inside information about dangerous work environments can also potentially report their concerns to authorities as whistleblowers if their employers refuse to adhere to safety standards for their particular industry.    

While we certainly can do more to stand for workers, the real question is do we want to? For me, and I’d like to believe for you too, the answer is an emphatic yes! The responsibility is on all of us to protect workers and show how much we care. It’s not enough to mourn those who tragically lost their lives due to negligence in the workplace. We must take action, now, to prevent loss of life in the first place. Get involved, demand change, save a life – today.  


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