Workers Memorial Day recognizes deaths on the job, calls for improved safety

PEPPER PIKE, Ohio — More than 50 years after the Occupational Safety and Health Act began setting and enforcing workplace safety standards, labor organizations in Northeast Ohio and around the country are highlighting the hazards that still exist in modern workplaces.

Thursday, April 28 marked Workers Memorial Day, which recognizes workers who lost their lives on the job or suffered injury or illness due to hazards at work.

“This is a day that we not only mourn those who have lost their lives in the line of work but also recommit ourselves to having safe workplaces,” said Dan O’Malley, the Executive Secretary for the North Shore AFL-CIO.

Cleveland area workers and labor organizations gathered for a Workers Memorial Day service at Garfield Memorial Church in Pepper Pike Thursday. It included performances by artists from the Cleveland Federation of Musicians and remarks from labor leaders.

Some credited the COVID-19 pandemic for highlighting workplace hazards and reinvigorating calls for stronger health and safety policies.

“It was extremely important for us, as we’ve been working through the pandemic, that our members and our students had the protections they needed to keep themselves and their families safe,” said Cleveland Teachers Union President Shari Obrenski.

“I think there were a lot of workers for whom the pandemic was the last straw,” O’Malley said. “Safety and health are not just ideals or things we believe should happen, but that we actually have a contract in place that guarantees that.”

AFL-CIO recently released its latest profile on worker safety and health. The report found an average of 340 workers died each day in 2020 because of hazardous working conditions. Another 120,000 died from occupational diseases in the same year.

Bill Mastroianni, the Director of Operations at the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters (OAPFF), noted many of the most lethal hazards associated with the profession are not as obvious as some may think.

“Every firefighter knows someone who died from cancer, every firefighter knows a firefighter who committed suicide, COVID ran rampant throughout all of the firehouses,” said Mastroianni, who is also a firefighter at the Euclid Fire Department.

He said occupational cancer, the leading cause of death in the field, affects one in three firefighters in their lifetime. OAPFF has been working to raise awareness about the disease commonly caused by exposure to hazardous material and chemicals at fire scenes. Until the Michael Louis Palumbo, Jr. Act passed in 2017, Ohio was among the handful of states that failed to acknowledge the link between cancer and fighting fires, often leaving firefighters without workers' compensation benefits as they battled the potentially deadly disease.

Mastroianni and the OAPFF are also pushing for more mental health resources. He explained suicide is the second leading cause of death in the profession, with a death rate three times higher than line of duty deaths.

“Every firefighter has given an oath. We will give our lives,” he said. “But we shouldn’t have to fight for the protection and give our lives because a safety measure isn’t put in place.”

The motto, printed on stickers and programs during Thursday’s Workers Memorial Day service, read “Mourn for the Dead, Fight for the Living.” Labor leaders at the event explained the pandemic highlighted the importance of evolving health and safety standards for modern risks and concerns.

“Raising the awareness of workplace safety as the environment changes is important. And it’s a living example of the work we all have to do to make life better for everybody,” said Leonard DiCosimo, President of the Local 4 AFM.

Thursday marked 52 years since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).