As the nation prepares to celebrate Labor Day, we have an opportunity once again to honor workers who have faced a difficult and challenging time since the Pandemic began. Thanks to the wonders of technology, many workers were given the option to shelter in place and work from home until a vaccine was developed. Those who worked outside the home were provided with Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). Yet, 642,000 people, many of whom were workers, were exposed to COVID-19 at work and died from the disease.
Sadly, it often takes a disaster and death for people to unite, address their institutional problems and make systemic, meaningful change. In 1911, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City weren’t prepared for the disastrous fire which took 146 lives, most of them women and girls. While trying to escape the higher floors, many found exit doors locked, and they either burned to death or jumped to their deaths when fire department ladders could not reach past the sixth floor.
Movement to Improve Safety Conditions
Out of that tragedy came a nationwide movement to improve safety conditions for workers. New York City required fire alarms, extinguishers and hoses be installed in all buildings. Employers agreed to pay medical bills and lost wages, regardless of fault.
The New York state legislature passed eight bills that addressed workplace sanitation, injury on the job, rest periods and child labor restrictions. In 1933, the National Industrial Recovery Act was enacted, and in 1970, OSHA became the law, whose intent was to ensure safe and healthful conditions for all workers.
Need for Worker Safety Still Great
Despite the laws, the need for worker protections is great. Last year, meat packing plants around the country made news for their extraordinarily high percentage of positive COVID tests. This may not have happened if workers had the proper PPE and were required to follow safety protocols. COVID-19 legislation gave the owners of factories and businesses millions of dollars in relief, but worker safety wasn’t included.
Today, the virus continues to spread because many people are not vaccinated and refuse to wear face coverings. It is imperative we remember the lesson learned over 100 years ago – that a safe workplace is essential – but it will take a village working together to see results. Workers, employers, lawyers, and state and federal lawmakers are among those who can play a critical role in ensuring that our workplaces are safe. The safety of working people, and by extension their families, should be our top priority.