Then boom, it was over

They would never have heard the classic labor song, "We just come to work here..." if they had not attended the annual, late April worker's memorial day, and they would not have been there had it not been for him. Twenty-three years ago he was in his early 40's, working in a road construction plant, saving money to start his own business. Long hours, dirty work. Then boom, it was over. Hit by a Caterpillar front-end loader, crushed so that his thoracic organs were found extruded from his body. His heart lay on the gravel floor of his workplace.



Another death on the job, the ensuing dance between worker's compensation agencies, health and safety regulators, machine manufacturers, plant ownership, fellow workers, the union. Everyone felt bad, of course. He was a good guy. No complaints.

A state investigation into the causes concluded by placing some blame directly on him, for not having worn a hard hat, for example; but most blame on the machine operator who was driving with his bucket raised too high off the ground to see anybody, much less the man he struck. And, by association, with the Caterpillar machine he operated, which could be, and had been, driven in third gear, leaving the operator completely blind. The general lack of supervision at the plant was another factor.  A single fine was laid on the company, $20,100. The company appealed and won and ended up paying only $7000 in fines. That was it.

Except for his family, including his daughter, who was seven at the time, and would continue to pay the emotional cost.

In the U.S. in 2013, 4405 workers went to work and never came home. Comprising a big part of the total number were transportation incidents, i.e people killed by machines.

In Canada in 2012, 977 workers were killed at their workplaces and nearly 700 injured each day, most in construction and mining incidents.

The majority of these statistics come from workers compensation agencies, which base their fatality reports on the number of files they have opened for fatal injury compensation. The figures are incomplete and have never included deaths due to the cumulative effect of toxins, for example.

"The history of compensation for bodily injury begins shortly after the advent of written history itself1. The Nippur Tablet No. 3191 from ancient Sumeria in the fertile crescent outlines the law of Ur-Nammu, king of the city-state of Ur. It dates to approximately 2050 B.C. 2. The law of Ur provided monetary compensation for specific injury to workers' body parts, including fractures. The code of Hammurabi from 1750 B.C. provided a similar set of rewards for specific injuries and their implied permanent impairments. Ancient Greek, Roman, Arab, and Chinese law provided sets of compensation schedules, with precise payments for the loss of a body part. For example, under ancient Arab law, loss of a joint of the thumb was worth one-half the value of a finger. The loss of a penis was compensated by the amount of length lost, and the value an ear was based on its surface area3. All the early compensation schemes consisted of "schedules" such as this; specific injuries determined specific rewards. The concept of an "impairment" (the loss of function of a body part) separate from a "disability" (the loss of the ability to perform specific tasks or jobs) had not yet arisen." (A Brief History of Worker's Compensation)

As it now stands, the fact that there is a state-sponsored worker's compensation system means that companies found culpable in workplace deaths cannot be penalized. This is referred to as "exclusive remedy".  Of course large and small corporations can be fined, but they can and do appeal those fines. The relevant agencies promise to more closely monitor companies found to be have been negligent -- as in the case described above - IF the workload is not too heavy for the limited number of inspectors. So much to do, so little time.

The principle of "exclusive remedy" was introduced in Prussia in 1871 and has been applied ever since with virtually no changes. Seems long past time to take another look at it. The worker may be responsible for his own safety, as all the public service announcements remind, advising people to work safe, but the outfits that employ them may make working safe next to impossible.