Activists memorialize North Carolina workers killed on the job

jhalpern@newsobserver.com April 27, 2012 

— More than 50 people gathered in front of the N.C. Department of Labor building Friday to remember people who have been killed on the job and to call on the state to do more to protect workers.

The Workers’ Memorial Day event was organized by The National Council on Occupational Safety and Health, an umbrella organization of state and local worker safety groups. The council found that 83 North Carolina workers died on the job last year, 30 more than the state Department of Labor’s official count.

“Unsafe jobs kill workers,” said Ajamu Dillahunt, senior outreach coordinator for the Workers Rights Project at the N.C. Department of Justice. “This must end now.”

As he opened the service, Dillahunt led the crowd in a chant taken from a song by union activist Harry Stamper: “We just come here to work, we don’t come here to die.”

Following a prayer service led by the Rev. Duane Beck of the Raleigh Mennonite Church, former state Commissioner of Labor Harry Payne spoke of the 83 dead workers. He said 18 were Hispanic, five were under the age of 21, and six were older than 65.

“What was stunning was the silence of the elected officials who were supposed to represent these people,” Payne said.

During his tenure as commissioner, Payne said, he focused on two things: finding workers at risk of death or injury, and rewarding employers who tried to improve worker safety. He referred to the Imperial Foods fire of 1991, which killed 25 people.

“What happens over time is that when something hits, we all say we’re going to fix it, do better, work hard. It becomes a real priority, but at some point the world moves on to more important issues,” he said. “The hope in having things like this, April 28, is to remind each other and those who govern us that it can happen, it can happen again tomorrow.”

Angeline Echeverria, executive director of El Pueblo, a Latino advocacy group, noted the higher risks facing Latino workers.

“Reading the names on this death list, this is an area where we are overrepresented,” Echeverria said.

Tobi Lippin, a consultant and former director of National Council on Occupational Safety and Health, presented the crowd with a report entitled “N.C. Workers Dying for a Job.” The report gave an overview of the 83 worker deaths and included suggestions for beefing up state and federal worker safety policies, including more stringent penalties when employers are found at fault.

After the event, Lippin and several others entered the Department of Labor building to present the report to Commissioner Cherie Berry. She was not there, but her chief of staff, John Baldwin, promised to read the report and discuss it with her.

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