Workplace tragedies hold lessons for all of us

Last year, when Anna Svidersky, 17, left home for her job at a Vancouver fast-food restaurant, her family never imagined that she would be gunned down behind the counter. Then again, no one thought 75-year-old Joe Rettig, a Suquamish electrician, would be electrocuted on the job or that Jamie Henslee, a 21-year-old bulldozer operator from Goldendale, would die in a workplace accident.

They are among the 112 husbands, wives, sons and daughters killed on the job last year in Washington who were honored last week at the Worker Memorial Service in Olympia.

Washington's observance began 14 years ago, when labor leaders proposed that we honor those who lost their lives while working. I have taken part in that ceremony from the beginning. For me, it is a time for employers, workers, state officials, and families to come together and honor the lives of loved ones and commit ourselves to preventing deadly and crippling accidents.

Workplace safety has always been a major focus in my life because I grew up in the mining community of Butte, Mont. Every June, we celebrated Miners' Union Day, a city holiday that featured a big picnic at the Columbia Gardens. The highlight was a safety competition where teams of miners competed for cash. Those teams practiced all year for the event, and the local newspaper published photos of the winning teams. It paid off. The first-aid training alone saved many lives in the copper mines.

My dad was an electrician who worked construction jobs. My mom often told me that her greatest satisfaction in life was hearing my dad's truck pull up in front of our house after work, because she knew he was safe.

One day, he didn't make it home.

I remember that day. My brother and I had bicycled across town to get a look at a big house fire. Just as we got there, the firefighters were loading my dad into an ambulance. A volunteer firefighter, he'd been shocked by a live power line while battling the fire. CPR saved his life, but his legs were badly burned from the electric shock.

At that time, there was no workers' compensation for volunteer firefighters, so friends and neighbors took up a collection to pay his medical bills. He was off work for three weeks and it drained our family's scant savings account.

But some good did come from that near tragedy. The accident spurred Montana's Legislature to extend worker's compensation coverage to volunteer firefighters. By the time my brother became a volunteer, firefighters were not only covered by workers' comp, but had other insurance and a retirement plan, as well.

I gave my mom even more reason to worry after high school when I went to work in the copper mines, toiling 2,300 feet underground. She hated that I worked in the mines and always encouraged me to become a teacher because schools were a safe place to work.

But in light of recent events, we know that's no longer the case.

Today, five of my grown children and their spouses teach in schools in Texas and Washington. We worry about their safety, just as my mom feared that a construction or mining accident would end our lives. Hopefully, we will find ways to deal with troubled people before they launch a campus-wide shooting spree.

There is another aspect to workplace accidents we don't normally think of-traffic accidents. Each year, the number of people killed while driving to work rises. Many of those deaths could have been prevented.

For example, a few years back I followed a state legislator down Interstate 5 every morning and watched as he read the newspaper while he drove. Men will tie neckties and women will put on makeup while behind the wheel. The point is that, in the workplace or on the road, most accidents are preventable if people would just slow down, give their undivided attention to their work, use common sense, and follow good safety procedures.

Hopefully, ceremonies commemorating those killed on the job will remind everyone of the agony family members deal with after a workplace death or crippling accident and make people think twice about the consequences of their actions and the importance of safety.

Death is permanent. There is no second chance when we don't put safety first.

Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.


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