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TOM RICKER: One ‘honor’ North Dakota could do without

ENGLEVALE, N.D. — Last year, I stood before the group assembled at the Fargo-Moorhead Labor Temple for the Northern Plains United Labor Council’s annual Workers Memorial Day Observance and shared the sobering news that, as of 2011, North Dakota became the most dangerous state in the country to work, holding the dubious honor of being 50th in deaths on the job.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fatalities in North Dakota workplaces now are more than three times the national average, and we once again are 50th in deaths on the job.

Each and every day in this country, an average of 12 workers die on the job as a result of workplace injuries — women and men who go to work, never to return home to their families and loved ones.

In 2012, 4,400 workers lost their lives on the job. But that is only a part of the deadly toll. Each year, 50,000 workers die from occupational diseases caused by exposure to toxic chemicals and other health hazards. That’s a total of 150 workers dying each and every day.

More than four decades ago, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and mine safety law were enacted, promising workers in this country the right to a safe job. Since that time, we’ve made great progress in making workplaces safer and protecting workers.

But here in North Dakota, we have a long ways to go.

Nationally, workplace fatalities are trending downward, but here in North Dakota, workplace fatalities are rocketing upward. In our state, 64 workers were killed on the job in 2012.

Let us not forget that this is partially the human cost of our state’s prosperity.

Nationally, workplace fatalities and injuries have declined significantly. Exposures to job hazards and toxic chemicals such as asbestos and lead have been reduced. Far fewer workers are dying from trench cave-ins or from being caught in unguarded machinery.

This progress didn’t just happen because the OSH Act and mine safety law were passed. It happened because workers and their unions organized, fought and demanded action from employers and their government.

Virtually every safety and health protection on the books today is there because of working men and women who joined together in unions to win these protections.

Every year on April 28, Workers Memorial Day, we pay tribute to those who have lost their lives on the job, as well as those who’ve been injured or made sick due to workplace safety violations.

This year, let us also remember to fight for the living and their families, so that other workers don’t have to suffer these devastating losses.

With a total of eight OSHA inspectors for both North Dakota and South Dakota combined, it would take OSHA around 111 years to inspect every work site in North Dakota. There are far too few safety professionals working for OSHA to effectively keep up with the rapidly increasing workload in our state.

We need to call on our congressional delegates to work with OSHA to increase staffing levels for the North Dakota OSHA office, re-open the South Dakota OSHA office that was closed 33 years ago and make sure that OSHA pay keeps up with the rapidly rising cost-of-living in western North Dakota, letting the agency retain top-quality workplace safety professionals.

This seems like a good place to start in fighting so that in future years, we have fewer names to read.

And as we remember our fallen brothers and sisters in North Dakota, we call on our elected officials to do more and do better.

All workers should be able to go to work and return home safe and sound to their loved ones, and no worker should have to sacrifice life, limbs or health to earn an honest day’s pay.

This Workers Memorial Day, let us continue to fight for good and safe jobs — not only here in North Dakota, but in workplaces across the country.

Ricker is president of the North Dakota AFL-CIO.