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What is the state’s most dangerous job?

Workplace fatalities in the United States are higher than they’ve been in years. In 2019, exactly a third of Illinois workplace deaths — 53 — were due to transportation accidents.

The Sears Tower, now Willis Tower, under construction in March of 1973.
The Sears Tower, now Willis Tower, under construction in March of 1973.
Sun-Times files

Larry Lucas, Robert Wiggins, Leonard Olson and William Walsh.

Those names probably mean nothing to you, and why should they? It was almost 48 years ago — April 11, 1973 — that the four employees of Westinghouse’s elevator division were putting finishing touches on an elevator shaft at the nearly-topped-out Sears Tower, using turpentine to scrub away oil the foundry put on the steel rails to keep them from rusting.

They were on a platform on the 42nd floor, in a “blind shaft” — two entrances, one 20 feet above their heads and another 100 feet below — when a spark ignited the turpentine. Other workers heard their screams and tried to break into the shaft to get to them, hammering at the concrete walls. But of course it was too late.

We seldom consider workers who lose their lives. They don’t even get the little gratuitous nod we give first responders, though it might be argued that they do one better than saving the city: They built it in the first place, and keep it running.

I thought of these four lost workers Monday morning because of an email with the enigmatic subject line: “BLS Midwest News Update: March 22-26, 2021.” You’d never open that, right? I did. The “BLS” is Bureau of Labor Statistics — part of the same federal government that took the lead in developing vaccines; I sure hope their medical judgment is better than their ability to craft catchy subject lines, or we’re all in trouble.

The email inside is clear, and the message isn’t good: 5,333 fatal work injuries in the United States in 2019, up 2% from the year before and the highest toll in a dozen years. Of those deaths, 158 were in Illinois.

In 1973, Mr. and Mrs. Herman Lucas present a check for $700 to the Niles Township High School Board in honor of their son, Larry, who was killed in a fire in the Sear Tower.
Mr. and Mrs. Herman Lucas present a cheek for $700 to the Niles Township High School Board, in memory of their son Larry, who was killed in April, 1973 in a fire in the Sear Tower
Sun-Times file

The most dangerous job you can do is ... any guesses? No, not prepping elevator shafts. Or being a police officer or firefighter.

In terms of raw numbers, it’s driving a truck. In 2019, a third of Illinois workplace deaths — 53 — were due to transportation accidents, followed by construction worker and miner. Bear in mind, of course, that while there were three times as many fatalities of truck drivers as police officers, there are also about three times as many professional drivers as cops, so in that sense, the jobs are about the same, danger-wise.

News that will be cold comfort to the family of Eric Talley, killed Monday while trying to do his job as a police officer, reacting to the shooting at a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. Or to the families of Rikki Olds, a 25-year-old store employee, and two co-workers, also killed. Add them to the 2021 stats.

Which brings us to the second biggest cause of on-the-job death: “violence and other injuries by persons,” accounting for 31 Illinois deaths in 2019. That includes 18 Illinoisans shot and killed while working and eight who shot themselves, which hints that workplaces are inherently dangerous, since in general more than twice as many people kill themselves as are murdered.

“Falls, slips and trips” are third, bringing us back to the Sears Tower. Those four weren’t the only ones killed in its construction. Just days after they died, Jack De Klerk was knocked off the 109th floor by a stray cable. He fell 35 feet, to the 106th floor. Not far, but enough.

Maybe when Labor Day comes around this year, we should nudge it more toward the reflective tone of Memorial Day, and remember all those workers who gave their lives to build our towers, dig our coal and rush toward gunmen trying to protect us. When you look at the skyline, almost every tall building has a casualty or four. Or more.

There is something important to the act of remembering. It’s a form of gratitude, and shows we’re not just skittering around stupidly, like crabs, occupying these magnificent shells that people gave their lives to leave for us.

Three weeks after his death, De Klerk’s widow, Jo Ann, crashed the Sears Tower topping-out ceremony and boldly signed her husband’s name on the celebratory steel beam, along with the bigwigs who never broke a sweat to build the place. Then she went to the 109th floor and put one foot on a steel beam like the one her husband fell from. It was, she later said, the scariest thing she ever had done in her life.

The Sears Tower under construction in May of 1972.
The Sears Tower under construction in May of 1972.
Sun-Times files