By Michael Wood
"We must face those deaths – those stories of loss – the reality of lives cut short before their time. ... Because only in facing that stark reality, can we overcome it."
Each April provides a particular opportunity to focus on the challenges of death in the workplace. We know that we have done a great deal over the past decades to push the risks down, but we also know that each year the list of names we acknowledge on Workers Memorial Day is simply too long.
This year comes with a special challenge. Whatever we can say about causation and statistical aberration, the number of workers who died in Oregon workplaces during 2016 reflects a sharp upward spike. Each year, we remind ourselves that these are not simply statistics, but individual stories of lives cut short. This year, there are far too many such stories.
In my comments at the GOSH conference, I announced that 2016 saw a 50 percent increase in the number of workers who died in Oregon workplaces, when we use the more comprehensive method of identifying such fatalities that we have used in recent years. But I also shared my concern that the numbers for 2016 simply confirm what appears to be a longer term reality – our overall downward trend in workplace fatalities appears to have flattened out over the past five years. Even if 2016 is an aberration – a statistical "outlier" – the overall trend is not what it should be. And I honestly shared my thoughts about where that leaves us as we look to the future.
Generally, those who heard my comments told me that they were "challenging" and even "inspirational." However, I also received feedback suggesting that they were "discouraging" and perhaps even "rude" – ill-suited to the occasion. I understand that we often attend such events in the hope of being re-energized by positive and inspirational messages. But when it comes to fatalities in Oregon workplaces, the news this year is simply not positive. There is no way to honestly pretend that it is.
We can face the real risks of death in our workplaces head on. We can honestly confront them as they occur, and we can truly strive to identify their causes and to eliminate those causes and to mitigate the underlying hazards. Or we can turn away and search for a more positive message. We can pretend that the problems and tragedies will go away on their own.
We do have that choice, I suppose. But for most of us, there really is only one choice. We must face those deaths – those stories of loss – the reality of lives cut short before their time. Whether it is one unnecessary death, or 10, or 30, or 50, we must face the reality. Because only in facing that stark reality, can we overcome it. And we must do better.
Editor's note: The annual Workers Memorial Day ceremony is noon, Friday, April 28, at the Capitol Mall outside the Labor and Industries Building in Salem.
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