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Remembering West Virginians Who Died On The Job

PHOTO: Monday 4/28 is workers' memorial day, set aside to remember people who died on the job. The West Virginia AFL-CIO is marking the occasion with a ceremony in Benwood, site of a mine disaster that took more than 100 lives in 1924. Photo courtesy West Virginia Humanities Council.
PHOTO: Monday 4/28 is workers' memorial day, set aside to remember people who died on the job. The West Virginia AFL-CIO is marking the occasion with a ceremony in Benwood, site of a mine disaster that took more than 100 lives in 1924. Photo courtesy West Virginia Humanities Council.
April 28, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Today is Workers Memorial Day, an occasion for remembering West Virginians who have died on the job. Josh Sword, secretary-treasurer, West Virginia AFL-CIO, said this year the ceremony has been planned for Benwood, south of Wheeling. Unions mark the day every year as a reminder that West Virginians still die at work, often unnecessarily.

Today, he said, they will read the names of the nearly two dozen people who lost their lives from workplace accidents or illnesses in 2013.

"Until we have zero workers who die on the job, we still have work to do," Sword said. "Unfortunately, this year we have 22 workers in West Virginia to recognize - people who lost their lives last year."

An estimated 5,000 workers die on the job in the U.S. each year, and tens of thousands more die from illnesses they contracted at work.

Sword said they chose Benwood in remembrance of a mine disaster there almost a century ago, when 119 men, most of them recent immigrants, died in an explosion and roof cave-in at a poorly ventilated and poorly inspected mine owned by the Wheeling Steel Corporation. Sword warned that many of the state's most important industries - mining, natural gas, construction - are still especially dangerous.

"We live in a state in which, literally every day, a worker goes in and puts their life at risk. They do it all to support their families, and we won't stop until we have no names to read," he said.

The federal Department of Labor has just made public new coal dust rules, designed to help prevent black lung. And in the last state legislative session, lawmakers passed - and the governor signed - one notable worker-safety provision. The 'OSHA Ten' law requires 10-hour safety classes for all workers on all public construction projects.

Sword said the union carries on what he calls a "constant struggle" at the state and federal levels, and in local contracts, to improve workplace safety.

"We believe that if we do more - in the form of legislation or in contracts that are negotiated - then maybe we can save lives," he said. "Make sure that the workers are trained, make sure the employers are providing a safe environment."

The memorial event is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. at Benwood City Park, on 4th Street in Benwood.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV