Workplace Safety in Broome County, and New York State Must Be a Priority for Government, Unions and Business

Robin Abaya, a long time, local pathologist and Occupational Health Clinic of the Southern Tier board member, spoke to the 30 workers at the annual Worker’s Memorial Day event held on April 28th of this year at Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza in Binghamton. Here is an edited version of her speech.

Unfortunately, as the regional economy has crumbled and governments are cutting back, the quality of the data on workplace injuries and fatalities has deteriorated. Despite politician lip service to the issue, worker safety is not a priority. As a coroners’ pathologist, I have encountered growing numbers of preventable work-related deaths, but I have never seen or heard from a state or federal workplace safety investigator. This is no surprise: there is only one OSHA work place inspector for every 45,000 workers – nationwide. The government has cut back on worker and citizen safety while ‘heroically’ bailing out the ‘banksters’ and Wall Street! It also seems that most union leaders are more responsive to the politicians than to their own rank and file. In New York State, especially Upstate, there are few serious investigations into the safety conditions of the workplace.

Farms, whether corporate farms or family farms are a major part of New York’s economy, but New York is not making the farming workplace safer. When an immigrant dairy worker dies in Tompkins County leaving a family in Mexico without their breadwinner, there is no serious investigation, certainly not by the same politicians who tout New York’s dairy industry. The voices calling for an investigation or for better working conditions for immigrant laborers are getting drowned out by the bigots (and the vested interests) howling about “illegal aliens.” Immigrant farm laborers are dying or being injured by the same neglect as American farmers and farm workers. Investigating the death in one group and forcing the employers to improve conditions or upgrade dangerous, defective machinery will benefit American workers who face the same dangers. One group of workers must not allow themselves to be turned against the other. That is the managerial tactic of “divide and exploit” that will undermine any move toward improving working conditions.

Construction workers and road crews face increasing dangers, including having to work in poorly secured work sites. After a speeding bus on the I-81 construction crushed two workers – we slowly learned that the placement of the warning signs was insufficient. One young worker, who was cut in half just above the hips, was reportedly conscious long enough to ask his co-worker to look after his child, before he died.

Teachers are at special risk for workplace violence. It is sobering to think that among the thirteen deaths at the American Civic Association mass shooting, there were 4 teachers and professors, and many more among the wounded. Why weren’t there any marches in the streets by faculty and their supporters to protest and mourn the deaths and injuries of fellow teachers? Why didn’t the Binghamton University organize in solidarity for its slaughtered teachers and visiting scholars? Where were the teachers demanding that guns not be sold to clearly mentally ill people, like the ACA mass murderer Wong? How many people know that Wong’s father had written his local police department begging that his son not be given a handgun permit? They issued one anyway. The ACA shootings killed international faculty connected with BU. A few years later, a psychotic grad student stabbed Binghamton University Anthropology Professor Richard Antoun in the hall outside his office. The student was known by the university authorities at several levels to be violent and delusional. Where were the students and faculty demanding more effective mental health services and competent action on the obvious warning signs of violence in a psychotic person? The murderer needed hospitalization, treatment and stabilization before he committed this terrible crime.

The difference between the public response to the violent workplace death of a beloved teacher and the killing of a police officer by a mentally ill hospital worker in Johnson City last month is striking: hundreds of fellow police officers, family members and community mourners closed down the Main Street in Johnson City to mourn the death of Officer Smith. Everyone took notice – and rightly so. Police and community solidarity ensures that police demands for better conditions and safety are addressed. Workers in other fields should follow the example of our police when they mourn a fallen colleague by closing Main Street whenever a worker is crushed on the job or a teacher is stabbed – then maybe the employers and the politicians will pay more than “lip service.”

These are not “private tragedies.” We are all affected whether we lose a veteran firefighter on the job from a heart attack or a teacher from violence or a construction worker in a poorly secured work site. Employers and officials – from the state and OSHA – are effectively complicit in the breakdown of worker safety.

There are other responses to preventable workplace tragedies that we need to acknowledge. We can follow the example of Brazilian autoworkers some years ago who blocked traffic (traffic I was in at the time) on a major highway when, after months of warning their factory managers about unsafe conditions and equipment in the plan, two workers died and several were maimed in a preventable accident. They forced a major business newspaper to publish a multi-page report documenting the most recent statistics on workplace death and injury, unheard of in the American press. As a result union safety committees were strengthened and the plant was held responsible. Whyshould anyone have to travel to South America to witness a righteous and effective show of worker solidarity and grief? American working people, especially those injured on the job or at risk of injury, should be marching too!

In conclusion, I must mention two growing work-related problems, especially here in the Southern Tier of New York: First, workplace injuries and chronic work-related pain are leading to a serious epidemic: overuse and misuse of prescription narcotics (Oxycontin, Vicodin and the like) just to help a worker continue on the job enduring the pain. These drugs can lead to addiction and make working conditions even more dangerous. There has been a steady increase in prescription narcotic overdose deaths among working people who have families to support. And the lives of whole families can be ruined by addiction. The over prescription of these drugs is also closely connected with the rising heroin epidemic throughout the country.

Second, growing job insecurity and workplace bullying is devastating. The loss of a job or the threat of job loss puts enormous stress on an employee. We know this leads to an increase in heart attacks and suicide. Suicide, because of job loss, is a major growing problem. It is not a ‘private problem’ and should not be swept under the rug by employers and officials – or covered up by lip service and platitudes.

The challenge for unions, community organizations and professional groups is to develop and organize effective responses to these events and challenges as they occur – which is why we have to learn from the example of the police and their solemn marches, or the Brazilian autoworkers and their closing the highway. And those responsible, employers amassing record profits, as well as those in authority, must be held accountable. There are effective, creative ways to address these problems. There should not be public subsidies to casinos when cuts in funding for workplace safety are causing worker death.The deterioration of work conditions and safety is not going to stop, let alone reverse this trend and create a future of safe work places and healthy workers for the next generation without collective action by trade unions, community organizations, religious groupsand others. While concerned professionals can help gather the data, study the changes and support your efforts, only organized and clear-sighted workers can bring about real changes.





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