Today is International Workers Memorial Day, a 32-year-old annual movement to recognize those around the world who have suffered or lost their lives at work.
This is important because, each year, more people are killed at work than in wars, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). And in most cases, these are not inexplicable accidents. These are deaths caused by preventable exposure to hazardous materials or substances. Asbestos occupations are among the hardest-hit.
Just look at the statistics from the ILO:
- Across the world, workers suffer 317 million workplace accidents each year and 160 million incidents of work-related illness.
- More than 2 million men and women die as a result of workplace injury and illness every year worldwide.
- One worker dies every 15 seconds, or 6,000 workers die every day, worldwide.
- Hazardous substances kill 440,000 workers annually. Asbestos alone claims more than 100,000 of these lives — a figure that's rising annually.
These deaths and injuries take a particularly heavy toll on "hazardous activities" like agriculture, construction, fishing, and mining, says the ILO. Occupational lung diseases in these industries, arising from asbestos, coal, and silica exposure, are a growing concern in both developing and developed countries.
In the United States, where asbestos use has fallen since the 1970s, increasing numbers of people are dying from past asbestos exposure — and because asbestos is still legal in the United States, more people continue to be exposed to this day.
A Nation of Dangerous Asbestos Occupations
Before the 1980s, when the United States began regulating asbestos use, many jobs put people in contact with asbestos on a regular basis.
The toxic mineral was everywhere — used across dozens of industries, not limited to mining, construction, and other "hazardous activities" as highlighted by the ILO. It was present in thousands of products and worksites. It was cheap, durable, and easy to mine.
For a long time, ordinary Americans had no idea of the dangers. But awareness grew over the 20th century, and so did a culture of secrecy among the corporations that manufactured asbestos-containing products, which would rather risk workers' lives than their own profits.
These companies knowingly endangered high-risk asbestos occupations such as:
- Aircraft and automotive mechanics
- Coal miners
- Construction and custodial workers
- Service members across all branches of the military
- Shipyard workers
- This is only a sample of jobs associated with high levels of asbestos exposure. To this day, asbestos can still be found in certain workplaces and made airborne if disturbed, putting workers at disproportionately high risk of mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer.
This is the reality that International Workers Memorial Day is designed to expose. For too long, companies have at best mindlessly and at worst maliciously put profits ahead of people, causing far too many preventable deaths.
What Can Be Done at the National and Global Level?
The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHAct) promises Americans the right to a safe job. Unions around the world fight to make good on this promise, and to their credit, do win protections that help make jobs safer. Now, more than ever, people are realizing the importance of a healthy work environment as they demand protections from COVID-19.
But clearly, as workplace dangers persist, there's still much to be done — and much red tape to be cut.
In the U.S., an estimated 2.5 million workers sustained work-related injuries in 2018, according to the latest available data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). But we can only estimate the rate of occupational injuries and deaths: There's no comprehensive counting system, only companies' self-reports.
Federal workplace safety agencies are often understaffed and underfunded. Many organizations never get a visit from OSHA regulators, and penalties are still too slow to incentivize companies to regulate themselves.
International Workers Memorial Day is an effort to raise public awareness of this, as well as hold nations accountable for prioritizing workplace safety in line with international labor standards.
Today is about both remembrance and action: Acknowledging lives lost, and continuing to fight for our fundamental right to health and safety at work. Or, as the slogan for International Workers Memorial Day goes:
"Remember the dead, fight for the living."
Past Workers Memorial Days have seen workplace events, multi-faith religious services, public speeches, laying wreaths, setting out shoes, and more activities to recognize workers.
While we can't physically gather right now, we can still make the most of Workers Memorial Day by attending virtual events (check the OSHA website for details), spreading the word on social media (use the hashtag #IWMD21) and encouraging each other to speak out against unsafe working conditions. We're never too socially isolated to join this fight.