Workers Memorial Day is a day to remember those who have been injured or died on the job, and to renew the fight for safe workplaces. This year the Allegheny County Labor Council, in Pittsburgh, Pa., will observe Workers Memorial Day on April 30 at noon in Market Square.

The ceremony will also commemorate the 100th anniversary of The Pittsburgh Survey (1907-1908), the pioneering work of Crystal Eastman and others who investigated the horrendous living conditions of Pittsburgh’s working class.

Pioneering woman, pioneering work

Eastman, a founder of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, came to Pittsburgh 100 years ago and began an investigation of labor conditions. Her report, Work Accidents and the Law, cataloged 526 workplace deaths that occurred in only one year in Allegheny County and highlighted the inadequacy of worker protection and compensation.

This report was one of a six-volume series that is known collectively as The Pittsburgh Survey, which examined life and labor in America’s fifth largest city at the time, and home to a massive exploited immigrant labor force.

The progressive reforms this series called for were hindered by the oppressive power of Pittsburgh’s industrialists and its political machine. Unfortunately, 100 years later in 2007, workers still face many obstacles to achieving a safe workplace.

Bush’s horrendous record

The Bush administration, acting on behalf of corporate interests, has rolled back and weakened existing worker protections. It has the worst record on safety rules in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s entire history, issuing no new significant rules during its first term.

In 2006, the number of coal mine deaths doubled, with 47 coal miners killed on the job. After withdrawing dozens of needed safety rules under development in 2001, the Bush administration is now being compelled to issue stronger mine safety protections.

Yet, since Bush took office, there have been repeated attempts to slash funding for OSHA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. OSHA’s budget has been cut by $25.4 million since 2001.

OSHA lacks the resources to protect the 100 million workers under its jurisdiction. With its only 900 inspectors, it would take 110 years for OSHA to visit every worksite under its jurisdiction. The number of hours spent per OSHA inspection continues to decrease, and the number of cases “downgraded” to less serious violations is rising. Penalties for serious violations remain low and are routinely reduced through a process called abatement.

The killing of a worker through the “willful” violation of a safety law is a misdemeanor, with a maximum sentence of six months in jail. In the 20 years between 1982 and 2002, only 1,700 out of 170,000 workplace fatalities were deemed “willful.” OSHA declined to seek prosecution in 93 percent of these 1,700 “willful” violations and less than 20 of these “willful” violators were ever imprisoned.

Millions injured, thousands die

Each year, approximately 4.2 million workers are injured, over 5,000 are killed and another 50,000 die due to occupational exposure. American workers need a strong OSHA and MSHA that puts workers, not employers, first and protects health and safety, not corporate interests.

Eastman’s pioneering work was an important landmark in this ongoing struggle for workplace health and safety. Workers Memorial Day 2007 in Pittsburgh will celebrate her important contribution, honor those who have lost their lives while on the job, and promote the health and safety of all workers.

Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, whose leadership saw the enactment of the Westray Bill of the Criminal Code of Canada, which holds corporations criminally liable when workers are killed or injured, will be the keynote speaker. The Allegheny County Bell, symbolic of a worker whose untimely death may have saved many, will be struck to remember those who have died due to unsafe working conditions this past year in western Pennsylvania.

Dr. Donna Puleio Spadaro is on the Allegheny County Labor Council Workers’ Memorial Day Committee. Her brother, Gary Puleio, fell 25 feet from a concrete tower and was killed on Aug. 15, 2001. After admitting no wrongdoing, the company, which had informally settled multiple serious violations only months before Puleio was killed, paid a $6,000 fine.