26 Apr 2023
Article originally appeared at Progressive.org
Safety problems at workplaces are getting worse—including preventable fatal accidents.
BY JESSICA E. MARTINEZ, MARCY GOLDSTEIN-GELB
Jessica James didn’t have to die.
Last year, James was killed three months short of her thirty-third birthday at FedEx’s World Hub in Memphis, Tennessee. The forklift she was driving flipped over, crushing her underneath.
Her death was no unforeseeable freak accident. James was driving on a metal ramp to deliver a load of packages into a FedEx truck. Weeks earlier, an inspection found that the ramp was damaged, with a cracked surface and repairs needed on its tires and bolts.
Following an investigation, the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration found seven safety violations (six of them designated “serious”) and fined FedEx $26,000. To put that in perspective, the shipping giant generated $93.5 billion in revenue for 2022.
Here’s the part that’s hard to bear: James had informed her supervisors that she was driving on defective equipment. If they had acted on her concerns, her life could have been saved. But they didn’t.
“She told me that they had a meeting and said they could not afford to fix the ramp,” Jessica James’ mother, Cora James, told MLK50. “If they say all they got to pay if somebody dies is $20,000, they come out cheaper keeping the ramps.”
Jessica James, along with thousands of U.S. workers who died on the job and millions who are sick or injured, will be honored this week during candlelight vigils, prayer breakfasts, safety rallies and other events that are part of Workers’ Memorial Week.
The event coincides with the day the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration first opened its doors on April 28, 1971. It’s a time to honor workers and families who have suffered fatalities, injuries and illnesses—and an opportunity to renew the fight for safer working conditions.
There’s plenty to fight about. In far too many workplaces, U.S. workers face the dilemma that James confronted on the last day of her life. You know something’s wrong, but the boss doesn’t want to hear about problems that might cost money or slow down the pace of work. So you’re expected to buck up and get the job done.
The available data shows that safety problems are getting worse, not better, for America’s 160-million strong civilian workforce. The rate of fatalities from sudden trauma—3.6 deaths for every 100,000 U.S. workers in 2021—is higher than it was five years prior. The number of children working illegally in hazardous occupations is also on the rise.
Another alarming trend: Black and brown workers die on the job at a higher rate than other workers, a consequence of past and current workplace discrimination. Some of the most egregious offenders, like FedEx, are highlighted in the 2023 Dirty Dozen report released this week by our organization, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.
Here’s the good news: Workers aren’t waiting around to get hurt or killed. Instead, they’re organizing to win better working conditions. Workers know from first-hand experience that forming a union is beneficial. This experience is backed by empirical research showing that there were fewer severe injuries and fatalities among unionized miners and construction workers.
Responding to concerns about safety, scheduling, sick leave and compensation, workers are forming unions at companies that previously had little or no union presence, including at places like Amazon, Apple, REI, Trader Joe’s and Starbucks.
Workers are also pursuing creative advocacy and legal and organizing strategies with assistance from workers centers and community-based organizations. To name a few, restaurant workers at Twin Peaks in Brentwood, Tennessee, are on strike to protest verbal and physical abuse; construction workers at Tesla’s giant gigafactory in Texas are fighting against wage theft and safety violations; farm workers in Sonoma County, California won new protections from the dangers of extreme weather driven by climate change; and workers and families in Massachusetts are organizing to improve conditions in the growing cannabis industry after the tragic death of Lorna McMurrey, who died from a severe asthma attack after inhaling cannabis dust at a production facility.
During Workers’ Memorial Week, we’ll remember workers like Jessica James and Lorna McMurrey. And we’ll honor them in the best way we can: by supporting workers and families who are joining together to win safer, more secure working conditions.