No worker should have to trade health or life just to make a living, yet work kills an average of 12 workers every day – people like Juan Carlos Perez Cruz, 25, killed when he got caught on the conveyor belt of a tobacco harvester in Martin County or Bobby Ammons, 57, killed by carbon monoxide poisoning in Macon County.
The numbers are sobering. In 2013, the last full year for which numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics are available, 109 workers died on the job in North Carolina, and many more were injured or suffered work-related illness.
In workplaces across this country, workers continue to be exposed to and die from well-known hazards that are poorly regulated and inadequately controlled. Sometimes they are spontaneous accidents like the crane collapse that killed three construction workers and critically injured another in downtown Raleigh last month. Sometimes the threat is insidious disease caused by exposure to chemicals lacking safety standards. Workplace violence is a growing problem, too, particularly in the service industry and in health care.
Since the passage of job safety laws more than four decades ago, we have made great progress in protecting workers at work. Thanks to mine safety laws and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, fewer workers die on the job today than did in 1970, but we still have a long way to go to prevent workplace injuries and deaths.
Especially in North Carolina, where Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry has consistently shirked her responsibility to protect workers. Recent reporting by The News & Observer shows that Berry is unwilling to do more than the bare minimum required by law – and sometimes cannot be bothered to do that much.
Berry hasn’t convened the state OSHA advisory council for five years running,
even though she is required by law to do so twice a year. Worse, she has turned a blind eye to workers killed on the job. Instead of counting and reporting to the public all work-related deaths, Berry has for several years reported only those deaths that were her responsibility to investigate. This past year, our labor commissioner used the patchwork of health and safety laws that gives various agencies different jurisdictions as an excuse to leave 86 dead North Carolinians unaccounted for by the very person elected to look out for their health and safety.
Berry seems more interested in protecting employers than employees. An investigation by the Charlotte Observer in 2008 revealed that Berry routinely reduces the fines levied on employers who donated to her political campaign. A U.S. Department of Labor audit in 2010 noted serious problems in Berry’s department, including downplaying the seriousness of violations, a penalty system that allows for significant reductions in fines and a retaliation division that didn’t follow federal procedures.
And rather than use her office as a bully pulpit to advocate for workers, Berry has been silent on critical labor issues. She would not support efforts to strengthen child farm labor laws, and she refuses even to comment on the widespread problem of wage theft and worker misclassification – a problem that costs North Carolina over $400 million each year in lost revenue.
North Carolina’s workers deserve better. When workers die on the job, their deaths should count for something, especially to their labor commissioner. Every worker’s death ought to be counted and accurately reported. Dangerous employers shouldn’t get special breaks for campaign contributions. And the state OSHA advisory council should have an opportunity to advise.
We in the labor movement have a saying: “Don’t mourn. Organize.” On this Workers’ Memorial Day, we remember those workers killed on the job, and we honor them by acting to prevent any other workers from dying. That means calling on Congress to strengthen the federal Occupational Health and Safety Act that is 44 years old and out of date.
And in North Carolina, it means calling on Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry to do her job and make sure all workers have safe jobs. North Carolina’s workers deserve and demand no less.
MaryBe McMillan is secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO.