Workers’ Memorial Day and COVID-19

Submitted by Jackie Boyd, Research Project Coordinator, Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences
and Barbara Hanley, Research Associate and Fatality Investigator, Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences

Workers’ Memorial Day is observed each year on April 28th, the day the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was founded in 1971. On this day, we remember and honor those who have lost their lives on the job to largely preventable fatalities. We also commit to reflecting on how we can improve workplace safety and health to prevent future fatalities. April 28th is a day to “Mourn for the Dead – Fight for the Living”, which is the slogan for Workers’ Memorial Day.

This year, as we remember and honor those who lost their lives on the job, it is important to remember and honor those workplace fatalities due to COVID-19, that occurred both on and off the job. March 2020 marked a changing environment for people worldwide. The COVID-19 pandemic hit and suddenly, some were hit with a two-week stay at home order, which was extended for months. The term “essential worker” came into common use because these occupations were considered necessary to maintain critical infrastructure and services. Many essential workers couldn’t work from home, and were instead on the front lines, providing essential services in health care and emergency response, agriculture and food services, transportation and resource distribution, as well as keeping the economy afloat in a global recession.

Oregon Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (OR-FACE) is a program that conducts surveillance, investigation, and assessment of traumatic occupational fatalities in Oregon, and produces safety materials to promote worker safety. OR-FACE defines a workplace fatality with the following parameters:

  • Self-employed, family, or volunteer workers exposed to the same work hazards and performed the same duties or functions as paid employees, and that meet the work-relationship criteria.
  • Suicides and homicides that occurred at a worksite.
  • Fatal events or exposures that occurred when a person was in travel status, if the travel was for work purposes, or was a condition of employment.

In 2020, there were 90[1] workplace fatalities reported by Oregon Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA), with 48 meeting OR-FACE criteria in Oregon. Of these fatalities, six1 were confirmed to be COVID-19 related.  However, the earliest of these six fatalities occurred in October 2020, so it is likely the number is much higher. Similarly, in 2021, of the 1001 workplace fatalities reported by Oregon OSHA, approximately 62[2] were considered OR-FACE cases and approximately 181 were attributable to COVID-19.

As we remember and honor the workers lost, it is important to recognize that COVID-19 has also devastated so many in our communities, including working families. Despite the current downward trend of COVID-19, people are still becoming infected and becoming ill. COVID-19 has changed our awareness of workplace protections, and there is still more work to be done, especially for workers returning to the workplace after working remotely.

This Workers’ Memorial Day, in addition to taking COVID-19 safety precautions into consideration, we need to be aware of our surroundings as we return to the workplace. Some workers may feel eager about returning to work after being remote, while others may find it difficult. Awareness to potential hazards is key to preventing the conditions that lead to workplace injuries and fatalities. At the workplace, ask your supervisor or safety coordinator for a return-to-work plan as a well as a refresher training on hazards specific to your workspace.

To honor those we have lost, we need to recognize these workplace tragedies were preventable, identify the underlying causes, and communicate what we have learned, in order to prevent future tragedies. Let’s stand together to strengthen workers’ rights and workplace safety and health.

To observer Workers’ Memorial Day, Oregon is holding a hybrid ceremony on April 28th at 12PM. The in-person option will be held at the Fallen Workers Memorial on State Capitol Mall in Salem. For those unable to attend in person, there is an option to stream via Facebook Live. Visit the Oregon AFL-CIO Workers’ Memorial Day 2022 page to learn more.

Washington is holding a virtual ceremony at 2PM on April 28th to commemorate Workers’ Memorial Day. Visit the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries page to learn more.

Some other upcoming safety events include:

  • May 2nd through May 6th is National Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls in Construction week. Throughout this week, workplaces take a break, known as a Safety Stand-Down, to talk about workplace safety. This campaign isn’t just for the construction industry and falls. These Safety Stand-Downs can occur in any industry and the conversations can be focused around job hazards, protective methods, and safety policies and goals relevant to the workplace. #StandDown4Safety
  • During this same week (May 2nd through 6th) is Construction Safety Week. This is a time for the construction industry to come together and reflect on workplace safety.
  • Safety Break for Oregon, happening May 11th, is an opportunity for employers and workers in a variety of industries to take time to reflect on the importance of protecting workers from hazards within the workplace.

 

[1] Data collected from Oregon OSHA Website. OR OSHA  https://osha.oregon.gov/pubs/reports/Pages/fatality-initial-reports.aspx?wp4441=l:100 Retrieved April 2022

[2] Preliminary data as of this date. See the 2021 OR-FACE annual report, expected to be published by June 2023. https://www.ohsu.edu/oregon-fatality-assessment-control-evaluation

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