Workers’ Memorial Day Ceremony Honors Victims of Fatal Workplace Accidents

The Workers’ Memorial Day ceremony at the Labor Union Hall on Tuesday, April 28th, marked the 45th year that the AFL-CIO-created event commemorated the lives of those workers who have lost their lives in accidents. The program featured a variety of labor and regulatory representatives that spoke on the importance of workplace safety in an effort to raise awareness about dangerous jobs and our responsibility to keep employees in Louisiana safe.

After an invocation featuring a poem by Mike Baird of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, Patrick Robinson, Director of the Office of Workers’ Compensation, spoke about his experience with workers across the Louisiana and his friend, a twenty year old named Frankie, who works 60 hour weeks at an industrial plant and goes to school at night, all for a brighter future.

Robinson explained Frankie’s drive and his appreciation for the men and women in labor, including when Frankie asked him if he “had ever really worked hard.” In relaying the story, Robinson told the audience, “I’ve been many things in life: a bartender, a vet tech, a lawyer, a judge, and now Director of the Office of Workers’ Compensation. But I kind of scratched my head a little bit [at Frankie’s question.] I looked at his boots all caked with mud, and his shirt at the end of a long day, and how tired he looked, even for a twenty year old guy. I just told him, ‘No, Frankie, I don’t think I have.’”

That theme of hard work and those who sacrifice their lives in the pursuit of their livelihood carried through the rest of the program, with Jason Coffey’s keynote address adding another personal note, as he discussed two fatal accident investigations that left a mark on him personally and professionally. One accident involved an employer’s deliberate decision not to utilize guard rails on scaffolding, and another was a tragic lack of lockout/tagout procedures in a sugar mill that resulted in the death of one man as his supervisor and best friend struggled to try and save him from a set of large grinding wheels. “[The supervisor] was able to grab his hand just as his friend’s foot got caught in the wheels and he was pulled away,” Coffey said. “What it comes down to is this…no job is a good job unless it’s a safe job.”

Coffey, who is the Program Manager of Louisiana OSHA Consultation, explained that the twelve preventable deaths that occur in the workplace each day in America are a continuing reminder that safety needs to be a vital part of work and business culture. Referring to the creation of OSHA, Coffey said, “Before 1970, there was no law that required employers to provide safe workplaces. At the time, there were an average of 38 preventable deaths every day. Today, employers have well-known legal and moral responsibilities…but everyday, those twelve people in America go to work and don’t come back home.”

The end of the program featured several updates, including information about the successes of the Kids’ Chance scholarship program. Kids’ Chance provides college scholarships to the children of workers who were killed or totally disabled in workplace accidents. Michelle Sorrells, an attorney representing injured workers, and co-chairman of the Kids’ Chance Committee for the Louisiana Bar Foundation, explained that the program awarded eighteen scholarships last year for a total of $45,000. The program has awarded over $400,000 in scholarships since the founding of the Louisiana section in 2004. Sorrells also promoted the upcoming Kids’ Chance fundraiser in Baton Rouge, which features family friendly fun with a western theme.

Though it is a somber occasion, Workers’ Memorial Day is meant to provide an avenue to remember why safety and health should be a priority for everyone. Robinson summed it up, “The question isn’t what could’ve been done or what should have been done – it’s what can we do.”

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