Every year, some 5,700 workers are killed on the job. Those deaths, which occur one or two at a time at a worksite, are noted in articles of two or three paragraph in local papers—if at all. Only when a large number of workers are killed do workplace deaths get national attention.
On Nov. 1 in the Village of Superior, Wis., the deaths of four workers—apparently from the buildup of toxic fumes—as usual went unreported in the national press. The workers were attempting to replace a pump in what was described as an underground holding tank at a landfill.
Jeff Vito, Superior director of Development and Government Affairs, told local reporters the four died while in a confined space, adding that working in such conditions is tremendously dangerous.
In fact, it was the second time in a month a group of workers was killed while working in a confined space. Last month, six Colorado construction workers were killed after a buildup of flammable vapors trapped them in a hydroelectric plant tunnel.
Safety experts say the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has fairly strong rules about working in confined spaces, but those rules apply only to “general service workers,” not construction workers.
After the past year’s well-publicized mine disasters, there was a groundswell of congressional and public support to develop stronger mine safety laws and ensure that the Bush administration’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) enforces both the new laws and the ones already on the books.
Looking at the seriously needed moves to improve mine safety, yesterday’s deaths led safety and health advocates to raise a couple of questions.
• Why isn’t there a similar movement to address non-mine workplace disasters?
• Where is OSHA’s long-promised confined space standard for construction workers?
Two good questions.
Mike Hall writes the national AFL-CIO news blog, http://blog.aflcio.org