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In Wake of Traumatic Worker Deaths, Advocates Urge New Protections

April 29, 2019

By Joe Maniscalco

Mourn the dead, fight like hell for the living: Worker advocates hold a solemn moment of silence for the some 40 workers killed in New York City over the last 12 months.

New York, NY – A grim observance held on a rain slick street in Manhattan this past Friday reemphasized, once more, that sometimes, when you work for a living, you don’t come home. 

Some 40 people died on the job in New York City last year. On October 27, Queens father of two Bing Wan was struck down at the intersection of 8th Avenue and 23rd Street after dropping off an Uber fare.The hit-and-run-driver that struck him hit two others before careening away again. Bing Wan died in the hospital a day later. 

Before Uber, Bing Wan worked in a Chinese restaurant with a closely held dream of one day being able to send his two young kids to college. He’ll now never get a chance to see that happen.

Nationwide, 275 workers die on the job daily — but what are we doing about it? 

Bing Wan’s co-worker Henry offers a flower in honor of the dead.

NYCOSH Executive Director Charlene Obernauer asked the same question as she stood at the intersection of 8th Avenue and 23rd Street addressing a small crowd assembled for this year’s Workers Memorial Day observance. 

“Whenever a worker dies on the job we have to ask ourselves, ‘Did we, as a society, do everything we could for this worker?’ Obernauer said. “Today, we commemorate workers who lost their lives, but we also call on our government to do more to protect workers.”

The Trump administration, however, is, in fact, doing less — and is on track to be the first administration in history not to introduce a single new  standard for safety and health.

OSHA, the federal agency tasked with safeguarding the American workplace since 1970, is being squeezed dry. Two critical safety programs — OSHA’s Susan Harwood Training Program and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board — are both on the chomping block. 

“Worker exploitation is rampant,” says Santos Rodriguez, director of Community Affairs & Strategic Initiatives for the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater NY.

Also, as it stands now, there are just 875 OSHA inspectors to cover 9 million American workplaces — a 40-year low. According to the National Council for Safety and Health, it will take OSHA inspectors 158 years to inspect all the workplaces within their jurisdiction. 

All this comes at a time when just going to work is becoming increasingly perilous for American workers. In 2017, traumatic injuries took the lives of 5,147 workers — an 11-percent increase over the five years prior. That doesn’t include the 95,000 workers who die annually from longterm illnesses and cancer caused by workplace exposures. 

Then there are the more than 3 million men and women who routinely suffer non-fatal workplace injuries and illness. 

At Friday’s observance, worker advocates in NYC declared that “No one should be allowed to put profit over the safety of people.” But isn’t that exactly what we see happening every day, everywhere we look?

Manuel Castro, executive director at New Immigrant Community Empowerment, urges greater protections for workers.

“Right now, we have billion dollar tech companies that have taken over the market in New York and have done no protections, whatsoever, for drivers,” Independent Drivers Guild Executive Director Brendan Sexton noted on Friday. 

Whether they’re committing suicide because they can’t make ends meet or falling prey to these mean streets just like Bing Wan — underwater cabbies and hard-pressed app-based drivers drivers are losing everything they have behind the wheel.

This past year, New York City’s booming construction industry also continued to be deadly for workers trying to realize their tiny slice of the American Dream. Some 16 traumatic construction worker fatalities — overwhelmingly Latino men working nonunion — have been recording in the last 12 months.  

The continuing death toll moved Santos Rodriguez, director of Community Affairs & Strategic Initiatives for the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater NY, to liken the carnage to “murder” when you “think of the lack of training that goes on in our industry.”

“The exploitation of workers in running rampant,” Rodriguez said. 

Offering more flowers to the dead.

The failing economic system, along with the xenophobic and patently racist policies pouring out of the White House ever since Trump first took office, have only made it easier for unscrupulous employers to exploit minority workers and immigrants.

Obernauer noted that everyone is made less safe when workers are too afraid to report unsafe working conditions, and called for legislation that protects all workers, in addition to “commonsense immigration policies that stops targeting hardworking immigrants for simply doing their jobs.”

“Latino construction worker are often exploited on the job working some of the lowest paying work in some of the most dangerous conditions,” Obernauer said. “For these workers that are undocumented, at the same time they are being exploited by their employers, they’re being harassed by the government, threatened with deportation for simply doing their jobs.”

As the rain pelted the pavement and traffic surged by, worker advocates stepped up to offer flowers to perished workers and to speak their names aloud. 

Said Vinny Alvarez, president, NYC Central Labor Council, “Each and every one of them had value that we need to recall today.”

April 29, 2019

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