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Laborers hold 'Memorial Day' - tie observance to campaign for passing tougher work safety laws.

LOWELL, Mass. -- Last September, Steven Woods was helping another worker pour hydrofluoric acid into a canister when the chemical splashed on his arm and chest. Woods, a 37-year-old plater at the Foxboro Co. in Foxborough, Mass., died four hours later. The corrosive acid is so strong that it the ate through his skin and bone.

Woods was a victim of what federal investigators later described as the company's "willful disregard" of safety laws. He is also among many who were to be remembered April 28, a day set aside by U.S. organized labor as "Workers Memorial Day."

Since 1989, when the memorial was instituted, labor unions have marked the event by staging rallies across the country. On that day, they have also called on unionized workplaces to observe a moment of silence at 2 p.m.

This year, the labor movement is tying the observance to a campaign aimed at passing tougher work safety laws. Union leaders say loose federal supervision is partly to blame for the fact that, every year, more than 10,000 Americans are killed in workplace accidents. Ten times as many reportedly die from work-related diseases.

Each year, more than six million people are injured on the job, and 60,000 are permanently disabled, according to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Labor is trying to drum up new interest in an old problem. In American's industrial past, death and injury were dreaded facts of life, especially in workplaces such as coal mines, construction sites and heavy manufacturing plants. These can still be dangerous places to work, according to safety advocates, but new industries and technologies have given way to new hazards on the job.

"It's not like the problem has gone away. "It's more like a silent epidemic," said Nancy Lessin of the labor-backed Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health in Boston. "We're now looking at injuries in a variety of workplaces, from chemical exposure among cleaning women in hightech plants to repetitive stress injuries suffered by keypunchers and grocery clerks."

Repetitive stress -- brought on by small, rapid movements repeated over and over -- is the fastest-growing source of occupational illness, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The stubborn realities of work have spawned a drive by labor and its allies to overhaul the U.s. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Since 1970, when the law creating OSHA was passed, 245,000 workers have been killed at work, and as many as two million have died from diseases contracted in the workplace, according to the AFLCIO.

The labor federation wants Congress to give OSHA broad powers to inspect work sites and shut down operations that pose an imminent danger to the safety and health of employees. The measure backed by unions would also require the establishment of joint labor-management "safety committees" in workplaces with 10 or more employees.

Business leaders say the proposal would indeed expand federal bureaucracy but would do little to protect workers from danger.

"A lot of businesses already have some form of employee participation in health and safety issues. It doesn't need to be mandated," said Peter Eide, a spokesman for the U.S. chamber of Commerce, which opposes OSHA reform.

He said organized labor would exploit safety committees for its own use, "as a union-organizing tool."

One worker who had no union representation was Woods. Foxboro officials said they do not know why he was not wearing the full protective gear, mandated by OSHA, when he poured the acid into a canister. But in February, the regional branch of OSHA reported that the company had failed to provide for its workers the gear and required safety training and supervision.

Foxboro was fined $105,000 for the death of Woods, who had worked there for 20 years, since he was 17. The company is contesting the penalty.

Ironically, a month after the incident, Foxboro captured top honors in the state's first annual "quality awards for excellence in manufacturing." The company produces measuring instruments such as meters and gauges for industrial use.

Last fall, state officials told Boston Globe labor writer Diane Lewis that in deciding to give Foxboro an award, they weighed Wood's death alongside other factors, including methods of quality assurance and customer satisfaction.
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Title Annotation:April 28, 1992
Author:Bole, William
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Apr 30, 1993
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