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Worker Memorial Day - Honoring the memories of fallen workers

By Gary Moore
Director, Department of Labor & Industries

Twice a year, the Department of Labor & Industries shines a bright light on the dark reality of death in the workplace. Each of these occasions, one coming in the spring and the other in the fall, attack the problem from truly opposite directions.

In the fall during the Governor's Industrial Safety and Health Conference, the department recognizes and honors real-life heroes and heroines whose quick thinking and fast actions have saved a life during the past year. It is a gratifying and satisfying moment, and by far the happier of the two occasions.

The spring observance - this year on April 28 - is our agency's annual observance of National Worker Memorial Day, a time set aside to reflect on and honor the memory of those workers who died in 1996 as the result of workplace injury or illness. While the rate of workplace deaths in Washington is lower than the national average, the hard fact of the matter is that each week - on average - two Washington workers die earning a paycheck.

So in 1996, as in past years, more than 100 Washington families had to deal with the pain, suffering and loss of a loved one who didn't come home at the end of a workday - the victim of a workplace accident or illness. Usually, there's little public recognition beyond family, friends and co-workers.

But sometimes the circumstances of that workplace death generate news. When two divers drown in an irrigation canal accident and two more volunteers die trying to rescue them, newspapers and television news shows are quick to report and broadcast the details. And when that happens, suddenly workplace safety and health becomes a topic of widespread public interest and concern. And the message is given significant and repeated exposure until the tragedy finally fades away in the shadow of the next big story.

At L&I, this represents an intolerable paradox - it takes human pain and suffering to focus the public's attention on workplace safety and health. Workplace deaths are preventable. We have to carefully examine each one, learn what caused it and then take steps to prevent the same thing from happening again. Every working person in Washington has the basic right to return home safe and healthy at the end of a workday. This is L&I's mission, and we work toward this goal every day.

But we need help from you.

L&I has 150 safety compliance and consultation inspectors to cover 150,000 employers and 2.5 million workers in Washington. Do the math, and you'll quickly see that a straight compliance or rule-enforcement strategy isn't going to get the job done. It's going to take workers and employers cooperatively striving to make worksites safer and more healthful.

But they can do it. Washington has a history of labor/management cooperation. Worker Memorial Day was established at the national level by the AFL-CIO, and organized labor remains the primary force for ceremonies elsewhere around the country. Here in Washington, workers and employers join together to honor the memory of fallen workers.

It is that same spirit of cooperation that is going to make worksites safer and more healthful, and create a real legacy for the men and women who we remember and honor on Worker Memorial Day. Take a moment on April 28 not only to honor the memory of fallen workers, but to commit yourself to protecting the living.

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