April 28, 2015

Workers Memorial Day: Losses marked by tribute, pledges to improve worker health and safety

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
Caption: Flowers and candles for the fallen. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

A 22-year-old Essex County man died last year when he was struck in the chest by a board while operating an edger. A 70-year-old Fulton County man died from injuries sustained in a logging accident. A 15-year-old boy working as a rafting river guide died after being thrown from the transport bus when it overturned in Warren County. A 38-year-old Albany County man died after falling 80 feet while servicing equipment for heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC).

An electrician died from a live wire; a trooper died after collapsing; a truck driver dumping topsoil was buried; a fuel delivery driver died when the tanker flipped over in snowy conditions; equipment fell on a construction worker and killed him; a tree cutter died from a 50-foot fall; a farmer died in an ATV incident, and another worker died from exposure to a hazardous environment.

These men, working everyday jobs, were among the 29 people who died on the job this past year in the nine-county Capital Region. They were honored at a somber Workers Memorial Day ceremony this morning at NYSUT Headquarters. One by one, the victim's names and causes of death were called out, followed by the ring of a hand bell. For each name, a volunteer wearing purple laid a red rose on a mirror in the middle of a draped centerpiece, as many in the audience cried for the lost lives.

The centerpiece was formed by a circle of 29 illuminated candles, and laid by their side, 29 sets of red and white roses.

"It's easy to forget that first and foremost we make workplaces safe," said NYSUT President Karen E. Magee.

Unions, she said, ensure that health and safety measures are put in place on worksites. But until those measures are there for all people, "we haven't done our job," Magee said. "We have to be vigilant."

"Today is a very solemn day," said New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento. "It's a quiet day. We pay our respects through words, thoughts and prayers. Beginning tomorrow, and for the next 364 days, we pay tribute though actions and deeds."

The rights to a healthy and safe workplace are under attack by business owners who put profit over safety.

At the state level, Cilento said unions are fighting against the push to eliminate the scaffold safety law, which is about "putting aside the health and safety of workers for corporate profits."

Cilento said when he was 17-years-old he worked in a neighborhood grocery store. His best friend had a prize job: He got to open boxes and stock shelves, allowing him to mingle with customers. But he cut himself with a box cutter and required serious medical care. Six months later, a similar accident happened to his brother.

"What kind of training and gear did these boys have?" Cilento asked. "None."

AFL-CIO is fighting for continued funding of the James Zagroda bill, which assists volunteers and other workers who have become ill after helping to rescue, clear and rebuild after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Many suffer with illnesses brought on by exposure to the numerous toxic substances at the site of the World Trade Center. The funding is set to expire in October 2016.

"9-11 was a battlefield, but it was also a workplace," Cilento said.

Paul Webster, NYSUT community outreach coordinator, said nurses, teachers and professors are among those represented by NYSUT who are subject to assault in the workplace. Recently, a teacher in Saratoga and another in Hempstead were assaulted on the job - one by a student, and one by a parent.

Maureen Cox, chair of the Northeast New York Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, said the solutions to improving workplace health and safety require better training, removing identifiable hazards, holding employers accountable, and protecting workers from disease and injury.

"Nationally, we lose thousands of workers each year," she said.

Sara Niccoli, director of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, said 650,000 workers die in the world each year from exposure to toxic chemicals. To contend with the "race to the bottom" put in place by companies boosting profits over people, people need to use their collective power to raise the minimum wage, build unions, provide the leadership and change to be a model for the rest of the world, and to demand funding for education so there will be an educated workforce.

"We in New York can be a model," she said.

The ceremony honored fallen brothers and sisters, beginning with the statement that "a moment of silence is not enough." It also paid tribute to those who have been injured on the job in the past year, and members of the Armed Forces who work every day to keep America safe.

Webster thanked NYSUT staff Therese Swota and Swinka Richards, both members of the CWA Local 1141 union, for putting together the ceremony, along with PSA member Wendy Hord, NYSUT's health and safety specialist, who joined Webster in reading one of the poems at the ceremony.

"It's an honor to do these things," said Swota, who designed the centerpiece tribute.

The Fallen

Albany County
Donald Fredenburg, 23
David Meltz, 56
Allan Richter, 48
Robert Trombley, 45
Alfredo DiBella, age unknown
Douglas Mayville, 42
Frank Mack, 38

Essex County
Jorg Borowski, 57
Lance Sawyer II, 22

Fulton County
Ronald J. Mead, 69
Roopnarine Surajpel, 28
David Ambrosino, 70

Rensselaer County
Matthew Philpott, 45
Nathan Winters, 34

Saratoga County
Pearly Provo, 77
Mark Hughes, 38
Ciprian Ivaseu, 33
Richard Stearns, 71
Michael Hauf, 54
Jon Stomski, 61

Schenectady County
John Dean, 39

Schoharie County
Steven Foote, 57

Warren County
Hunter Scofield, 15
Fadle Assallami, 54
Kevin Bullard, 41

Washington County
Robert Graham, 60
Stephen Andriani, 57
Adam Devino, 28
Melvin Jacobie, 41

NYSUT Footer
Our Voice, Our Values, Our Union