Skyline of Richmond, Virginia

Philadelphia Commemorates Workers Memorial Day

05.11.14

by John O. Mason

Members of Philadelphia’s Labor community honored workers killed or injured on the job at a commemorative breakfast, held at Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 Hall, 1301 South Columbus Blvd., on Friday, April 25, 2014.

The event was sponsored by the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO and the Philadelphia Area Project for Occupational Safety and Health (PHILAPOSH).

Kathy Black, Health and Safety Director of AFSCME District Council 47 and Chair of the PHILAPOSH Board, welcomed everyone, and the Reverend Colleen M. Butler prayed the blessing over the food. Kathy Black gave a special welcome to the families of workers killed on the job recently-Jeff Davis, Scott Shaw, Thomas Hetrick, Richie Brady, Kevin Sparks, Joseph Matejik, Anne Bryan, and Roseline Conteh.

Pat Eiding, President of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, said, “Our work is really ahead of us” in advocacy for workers’ safety. Pointing out that the Philadelphia AFL-CIO office was across the street from the building that collapsed at 22nd and Market streets in June 2013, and which resulted in people’s deaths, Eiding said, “We as Labor people know that was an accident ready to happen from the day the demolition started. We tried to send that message across the city, but typically, the people (of) organized Labor, for some reason or another, are looked on as troublemakers instead of problem solvers. That’s certainly a shame, because we have a lot to offer.” Due to union representation and training, said Eiding, “we’ll be able to go home the way we left the house this morning.”

If one was to go through the man part of Philadelphia or the neighborhoods, added Eiding, one “can see the mess of the (building) contractors, with some pieces of scaffolding on three legs and a board holding up the fourth leg, and nobody paying attention…As bad as it is for those workers, people in the community suffer because of that.”

Barbara Rahke, PHILAPOSH Director, said of this year’s program, “This year, it was very obvious to us that the connection between workplace safety, workplace health, and public health and safety are connected. This is an old issue that we’ve been talking about for a very long time. Communities around refineries (have been) working with workers inside the refineries to make sure the communities were safe. The environmental justice movement has been built around that.”

Rahke added that there would be a focus on the families of workers killed on the job, “the families who have suffered,” she said, “in ways that I can only imagine.” Rahke commended the work of Holly Shaw, PHILAPOSH’s outreach person to the families of workers killed on the job, and whose husband, Scott, was killed falling off a barge in the Schuylkill River.

Jerry Roseman, Director of Environmental Science and Occupational Health and Safety for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health and Welfare Fund, spoke of his work with several other unions along with PFT, saying, “I’ve chosen to work with unions, workers, and the pubic for more than thirty years, because of my firm belief that those who are directly exposed to hazardous (material) have an absolute right to know about those hazardous conditions, and they have the right to participate in designing and implementing those measures to prevent their own injuries, illnesses, or worse. I’m proud to be able to add my voice to the voices of so many others today who are fighting to eliminate workplace health and safety hazards that impact on the lives of so many of us.”

Roseman called the building collapse on Market Street last year “a catastrophic example of the connection between public safety and workers’ safety.” But, he added, “there are many other situations, even if less immediately devastating, that put workers and the public at great risk.

“Sand-blasting and high-speed sawing and cutting of sitting stone and cement block,” added Roseman, “can pose serious silica dust hazards to workers and to the public. Improperly controlled lead removal, or removal and demolition work in buildings with asbestos, also result in exposures that cause sickness and death. These types of exposures are much too common, and demonstrate that even the less obvious and unseen hazards must be recognized and controlled. Unlike a fall from a roof, or a bridge, or a scaffolding, where the hazard and direct result are clear, what these health hazard situations have in common is not just the workers and the public are put at risk of developing cancer or respiratory diseases, like asthma, silicosis, and asbestosis, but that these diseases can take years before they show up, making it harder to connect the cause and the effect, and sometimes difficult to convince employers and building owners to do the right thing.”

The keynote speaker for the event was Jordan Barab, Deputy Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), who commended the staff, volunteers, and officers of PHILAPOSH for their work, along with the regional OSHA staff; “These are the people,” he said, “who work their butts off every day, including weekends and nights, to make sure workers are safe in this country,” and he encouraged everyone in the audience to work with them.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act, which created OSHA, Barab said, “was passed in 1970, with one very simple premise, (that) workers have the right to a safe work place, and employers have a responsibility to maintain a safe work place.” Of course, he added, “It’s not that simple, it requires work on our part every single day. To make sure that promise comes true.”

During the past year, added Barab, “We had the shut down of the federal government, and sequestration, it’s been rough for everybody to do the kind of work that we need to do, and we had to cancel a lot of events” with PHILAPOSH, but the OSHA main office and field operations continued working; Barab spoke of OSHA inspectors in Ohio, who found “a bunch of workers on top of a building with no fall protection.” The inspectors confronted the workers’ employer, who told the agents, “I’m really sorry about that, I didn’t think OSHA was on the job this week.”

“That tells you something about,” added Barab, “certain companies in this country, and it tell you something about the importance of having a watchdog agency that can make sure that employers do what they’re supposed to be doing.” Barab added that OSHA has been criticized to carrying out too much or too little enforcement, for dong regulatory action and “sub-regulatory” actions, for helping unions organize, for targeting conservative activists, for being “at war” with family farms; “We’ve even been criticized for criticizing our own out of date chemical standards,” he added, and “we’ve been criticized for issuing press releases that are critical of companies that break the law and cause the death of workers. Alll that criticism means to me, is that we’re doing something right.”

The day’s program ended with a funeral procession down Columbus Boulevard to Penn’s Landing, accompanied by Brian Widelitz playing the bagpipes. Rabbi Mordechai Liebling led a memorial service for workers killed on the job in the past year; it concluded with the reading of names of slain workers, while participants tossed roses into the Delaware River while Widelitz played “Amazing Grace.”