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Tom Ricker, Published April 27 2013

Letter: Workers must be protected

As of 2011, North Dakota became the most dangerous state in the country to work, holding the dubious honor of being No. 1 in death rate on the job. According to the most recent statistics, fatalities in North Dakota workplaces are more than three times the national average.

With a total of eight Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors for the entire state, it would take OSHA nearly 93 years to inspect every work site.

Considering that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, oil and gas industry fatalities are seven times higher than the rate for all industries, we shouldn’t be surprised that the oil boom has come with a hefty price tag of an increase in death on the job.

Last year, right here in North Dakota, at least 34 of our hard-working sisters and brothers left for work one day and didn’t come home to their families.

Every day people are suffering on the job due to workplace injuries from combustible dust explosions or exposure to well-known hazards like asbestos and benzene. These occurrences are all too common.

Worse still are debilitating lung conditions like silicosis, caused from exposure to silica dust.

Despite the fact we know how to prevent this and can easily implement straightforward protections, a new OSHA standard to protect workers from this harmful chemical is being blocked by industry opponents.

This is the reality in the United States today, but it is our job to prevent these deaths and injuries by fighting for stronger standards, more oversight and stronger policies in North Dakota’s workplaces.

When working people in North Dakota come together through unions and through collective bargaining, workers are given a voice.

But these efforts to make the workplace safer have come under widespread attack by corporations that want to curb the rights of workers to speak out against safety violations.

With false claims from business groups and those on the right that regulations kill jobs, enforcement has been weakened, budgets slashed and fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters in our communities here in North Dakota continue to be at risk. Corporations direct a laser-like focus at taking away workers’ rights and weakening the role of government in protecting the public.

We know the truth. We know that when working people in North Dakota fight back and voice our concerns for health and safety by demanding adequate regulations and policies, lives will be saved and everyone’s jobs will be safer. Think about North Dakota’s teachers, nurses, firefighters and police officers – they can’t do their jobs if their budgets are at risk.

We also must take the time to remember our Latino and immigrant sisters and brothers who disproportionately hold riskier jobs and continue to be at an increased risk of job fatalities. In 2010, the job fatality rate for Latino workers was 3.9 per 100,000 workers, compared with the overall rate of 3.5 per 100,000, with 729 Latino workers losing their lives on the job. The majority of these deaths were among immigrant workers.

Employers continue to take advantage of immigrant workers, many of whom lack documents or are unable to speak up because of limited English proficiency or because they remain unaware of their rights as individuals working in the United States. As we work to raise health and safety standards for all workers, comprehensive immigration reform remains a priority – because it is only through ensuring their equal rights that raising the standard of worker protections is even a possibility.

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.

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.