Workers’ Memorial Day, also known as Workers’ Mourning Day or International Commemoration Day (ICD) for Dead and Injured, is observed each year on April 28, the anniversary of the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). It is a somber occasion to remember the lives ended or irreversibly altered by workplace incidents and to rededicate ourselves to the mission of occupational health and safety, hence the slogan for the day: “Remember the dead—fight for the living.”
The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) first designated April 28 as Workers’ Memorial Day in 1989, and in the time since, trade unions and labor organizations throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa have organized similar annual events on the same date.
While workplace safety has certainly improved over the last 30 years, recent data from the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) suggests that workplace fatalities continue to be a concern in the United States. In its latest Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), the BLS noted 5,250 fatal workplace injuries in the U.S. in 2018—a 2% increase from 5,147 in 2017, with the fatal workplace injury rate remaining unchanged at 3.5 per 100,000 full-time workers.
In addition to the overall increase in workplace fatalities in 2018, the BLS also reported the following:
- A 12% increase (from 272 to 305) in deaths from unintentional overdoses due to nonmedical use of drugs or alcohol while at work—a sixth consecutive annual increase;
- A 13% increase in incidents involving contact with objects and equipment, from 695 to 786 (This increase in fatalities was driven by a 39% increase in workers caught in running equipment or machinery and a 17% increase in workers struck by falling objects or equipment.);
- An 11% increase in work-related suicides, from 275 to 304; and
- A 3% increase in deaths from violence and other injuries by persons or animals.
In its response to the latest data, OSHA emphasized that it will use insights from BLS numbers to target its enforcement and noted that inspections were up. However, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Occupational Safety and Health Loren Sweatt rightly added, “Any fatality is one too many.”
Taking Preventive Action
A fatality is an environment, health, and safety (EHS) professional’s worst nightmare. This Workers’ Memorial Day, we should take a moment to pause and reflect on the gravity of lives changed forever by workplace incidents but also take the opportunity to focus on the core mission of safety: preventive action.
What are we doing, and what more can we possibly do, to prevent incidents and fatalities among our workforce? How are we supporting total worker health and driving safe behaviors? Are we appropriately recording, tracking, and managing accidents so we can learn from them?
Workers’ Memorial Day serves as an annual reminder of the importance of occupational health and safety, and EHS professionals can best serve the memory of those workers impacted by tragedy—and their families—by promoting safe habits and processes in the workplace every day of the year.