A workplace shouldn’t be hazardous to anyone’s health

Thousands of American workers are sickened or injured on the job every day. Migrant children have been put to work in hazardous jobs, in violation of child labor laws, according to recent news reports. We can do more to protect workers, a labor executive writes.

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Fredricka Woods leaves white roses at a memorial on Workers Memorial Day to remember workers who have died or suffered illnesses or injuries on the job, Tuesday, April 25, 2023, at PortMiami in Miami. The group also addressed Florida Senate Bill 256 which would change how unions operate in the state of Florida. Woods works at PortMiami and lost her mother who died while working at PortMiami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) ORG XMIT: FLLS101

Fredricka Woods leaves white roses at a memorial on Workers Memorial Day to remember workers who have died or suffered illnesses or injuries on the job, Tuesday, April 25, 2023, at PortMiami in Miami.


The price of going to work should never be death, injury or illness on the job. That’s why the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was founded a generation ago, and why labor unions just commemorated Workers Memorial Day to remember victims of job hazards and to fight for safer workplaces.

Many job sites are safer since the establishment of OSHA. Yet, for thousands of workers — and children — a steep price for going to work continues to be paid. Every day, nearly 9,000 workers in the U.S. are sickened or injured on the job. And on average, 343 workers die from job-related injuries every day, not including an estimated 120,000 workers killed by occupational diseases (a statistic that does not include COVID-19).

Those paying the price are typically like the voiceless victims written of more than 100 years ago in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”: those without unions, migrants, the working poor and children.

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored how the balance between safe jobs and profits is too often weighted toward powerful corporations and employers. Employees who were told they were essential, and were required to work jobs that exposed them to the coronavirus, learned if they spoke out against dangers and united in a union to protect themselves, they were expendable, not essential and often were fired.

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As labor markets tightened when workers were forced to choose between low-paying, dangerous jobs and their safety, corporations didn’t respond by addressing concerns. On the whole, they did not invest in safety nor did they take seriously laws that protect workers’ freedom to unite in unions for safer jobs. Instead, they turned to children.

Violating child labor laws, for profit

News media reported earlier this year the recent wave of migrant children entering the U.S. has been a boon for corporate employers. They cited underage workers on the midnight shift, bent over hazardous machinery in Michigan making packaged food goods; 12-year-olds working as roofers in Florida and Tennessee; underage slaughterhouse workers in Delaware, Mississippi and North Carolina; and children sawing planks of wood on overnight shifts in South Dakota — all in violation of child labor laws.

Corporations and brands that ended up profiting off their labor include J. Crew, Walmart, Target, Ben & Jerry’s, Whole Foods, Fruit of the Loom, Ford, General Motors, Cheerios, Chewy and Nature Valley.

While the revelations are shocking and focused public attention on the problem, the issue of child labor and associated injuries and deaths is not new. In a story that quickly faded, it was reported last year that 12-year-olds were working in Alabama manufacturing plants for Hyundai suppliers.

And the U.S. Labor Department reported in 2022 that violations of child labor law had been increasing since 2015. They cited horror stories, including that of a 16-year-old working on a construction site who fell 160 feet to his death after trying to jump from a roof to a power lift.

In the agricultural industry, more than half of work-related deaths have long occurred among children, some as young as 12. Investigations by Human Rights Watch found that children work unlimited hours in extreme heat, using heavy machinery and dangerous tools, and facing exposure to toxic pesticides.

At the heart of the issue is whether our nation will show that it truly cares about the victims of deadly and dangerous work. We have the ability to give workers the power they need. Strong laws and their enforcement are effective, as are workers empowered by a union.

It is estimated that a half-million workers’ lives have been saved since OSHA was founded. We can give OSHA the resources it needs to do even better. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers with unions forced changes to help prevent the spread of the virus, just as workers in unionized industries have long had safety committees that help prevent deaths and injuries. We can do more to make it easier for workers to form or join a union.

Every worker deserves to come home to their children — and every child must be allowed to have a childhood. We must vow to do more to leave no worker — or child — behind.

Edward M. Smith is CEO and chairman of the board of Ullico, Inc., the nation’s only union- owned insurance and investment company.

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