Josh Shaffer

Bell tolls 150 times for NC’s fallen workers, killed on the job

Workers’ Memorial Day observance held on the Capitol grounds in Raleigh to honor the 150 people known to have died from workplace injuries in 2015

Widow Shara Anderson speaks in remembrance of her husband, Craig, who died after an industrial accident at SPX Transformer Solutions in Goldsboro in 2015
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Widow Shara Anderson speaks in remembrance of her husband, Craig, who died after an industrial accident at SPX Transformer Solutions in Goldsboro in 2015

Just past 10 a.m. Friday, a bell began tolling outside the State Capitol, its chime carrying down Fayetteville Street. It rang once for Daniel Craig Anderson, once for Lisa Wilkerson and again for 148 other workers on highway crews, construction scaffolds and tree-trimming trucks – all of whom died on the job.

Each toll marked the life of a North Carolina worker killed in 2015: the teenager caught in a wood chipper, the road worker run down by a drunken driver and the general laborer who suffocated inside a grain bin.

“I have a little boy who will never know his father,” said Shara Anderson, 34, whose husband, Daniel, died at SPX Transformer Solutions in Goldsboro, which had a previous fatality in 2012. “Sunday would have been our eighth anniversary.”

Carol Brooke, center, with the N.C. Justice Center, holds a sign with names of people who lost their lives in workplace accidents in 2015 during the Workers’ Memorial Day observance on the Capitol grounds in Raleigh on Friday, April 28, 2017. Juli Leonard

About 50 people gathered at the Capitol for Workers Memorial Day, an event started by the AFL-CIO in 1970. As the bell pealed, staff with the state AFL-CIO called for greater attention paid to workers’ safety, including stricter oversight at job sites and higher fines for violations.

But most adamantly, workers and their advocates called for Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry to attend their memorial, which would be a first in her 16-year tenure. They marched to her Edenton Street office and delivered an invitation signed by everyone at the memorial, including families of workers killed.

“I am here today to tell the Department of Labor to stand up and do something for us,” said Caleb Sanderlin, 20, who has been on strike since last year after tearing a chest muscle on the job at Border Rebar in Gastonia – an injury for which he said he received no time off or workers’ compensation dollars.

The 150 figure is the latest workplace fatality count from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reports a rise from 137 deaths in 2014. The state Labor Department counts far fewer deaths for fiscal 2015 – 42 altogether – because only those fatalities being investigated by the state Occupational Safety & Health Division are included. Dozens of North Carolina workers die each year with little or no local attention because narrow state and federal laws prohibit state investigation.

Berry attended an awards banquet in Charlotte on Friday recognizing workplace safety, said Art Britt, her chief of staff. Communications director Dolores Quesenberry accepted the invitation on her behalf.

State AFL-CIO spokesman Jeremy Sprinkle said previous commissioners helped to organize the event that Berry has yet to attend, but Britt said this has mostly been due to scheduling conflicts.

“As a rule,” Britt said, “she would probably not attend. Nothing against the effort. It’s just that she thinks the best way to memorialize these people is to keep these things from ever happening again.”

Families and friends of killed workers gathered on a small hill behind the ringing bell, holding pictures of their loved ones. Eddie Wilkerson lost his wife, Lisa, 43, when a tree hit her postal delivery truck. They had been married only 9 months.

Sprinkle mentioned several others by name, including Jose Luis Lopez-Ramirez, 33, of Clinton, who was one of three workers who died in 2015 when scaffolding collapsed during the construction of the 11-story Charter Square building in downtown Raleigh. The state Labor Department found several serious safety violations and fined three contractors involved in the project a total of $160,000.

Workers Memorial Day drew safety advocates such as Sanderlin, who were injured on jobs they described as putting productivity ahead of worker health. Earl Bradley of Durham, 33, an advocate for a $15 minimum wage, said he did not understand why his mother came home with sores and burns from her fast-food job until he began working for Wendy’s. Fast-food workers who are injured cannot even find bandages or burn cream, he said.

“I never knew working at fast food would give me battle scars,” he said.

About 10 minutes passed while the bell rang for each of the 150 workers, including Jesus Morales, Mason Cox, David Baynard. Shara Anderson took her turn, striking the bell 15 times, including once for the husband she has a lifetime to miss.