Every day, 150 workers are killed by work-related injuries and illnesses.
It’s a striking statistic and not one that usually comes to mind for most working people in Idaho. That’s why I wanted to applaud the work of the Idaho Statesman and reporter Audrey Dutton for shedding a light on longstanding issues of worker safety in a recent article on safety violations and worker injury and death in the construction industry.
Every year on April 28, Idaho labor unions observe Workers Memorial Day to remember those who have died on the job and to renew the fight for safe workplaces. According to the most recent information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 36 Idahoans died on the job in 2015. These tragic deaths could have and should have been prevented. These workers did not have to die.
The current system in Idaho is to always choose the lowest bidding contractor. We should be able to expect contractors are safe, legal, reputable and in compliance with all OSHA regulations. Our state needs to be able to enforce penalties against contractors who misclassify workers and call their employees “independent contractors” in an attempt to reduce costs and shift responsibility. That just leads to less protection for workers and more needless injuries and deaths in our communities.
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For many workers, wages are staying flat or falling, and making ends meet is harder than ever. Yet every day working men and women go to work and risk their lives in an unsafe work environment in pursuit of a paycheck that barely pays the bills. Millions of working people across the country and in Idaho are regularly exposed to hazards due to unsafe workplaces, but they head to work each day because their families’ survival depends on it. It is not right for any business to put excessive profits ahead of safety. Simply put, it’s a slap in the face to working people.
By coming together in unions, working people have successfully pushed for significant improvements in their working conditions. Nearly every safety and health protection law on the books today is there because of workers who joined together to win these protections. As a union, working people have the freedom to negotiate with their employers to ensure enforcement of safety standards that reduce workplace deaths and injuries.
Unions also provide training and education to workers about safety and health hazards. It is well documented that union workplaces have much stronger enforcement of job safety laws than nonunion workplaces.
As Idahoans, we should all renew our commitment to work together for fairer, safer workplaces, and a better life for all workers. We come together to call for jobs in this state that keep workers safe and healthy, and pay fair wages. We will seek stronger safeguards to prevent injuries and save lives. We will stand for the right of all workers to raise job safety concerns without fear of retaliation, and for the freedom to form unions and bargain for respect and a better future.
Aaron White is Idaho state AFL-CIO president.