In a ceremony today on the State Capitol grounds, Gov. Tim Walz and Labor Commissioner Roslyn Robertson joined members of Twin Cities Building Trades unions in paying tribute to workers who died in the past two years due to work-related injuries or illnesses.
Observed each year on April 28, Workers Memorial Day honors those who lost their lives on the job. In ceremonies across North America, union members pause to reflect on the impact workplace deaths have on families, co-workers and communities, and raise awareness of ongoing efforts to ensure safer, healthier workplaces.
Walz and other speakers at the St. Paul ceremony noted that COVID-19 has created new hazards and uncertainties for frontline, essential workers, who have not been able to work remotely over the past 13 months.
“Those that aren’t with us today, those 7,000-plus Minnesotans who aren’t here, no doubt some of them contracted COVID and lost their lives doing their jobs,” Walz said. “And we found out very early how essential workers are.”
“Today is about remembering,” Walz added. “But there better be some lessons we’ve learned over the last year.”
Building Trades unions honored 12 fallen members at the ceremony, their names affixed to white crosses held by family members or union representatives. At the conclusion of the observance, a speaker called out each name, followed by a single bell toll, as black sashes were placed over the crosses.
“They used their God-given talents to provide,” St. Paul Building Trades President Tom McCarthy said during an opening prayer. “They left us too soon. We humbly pray for their families and loved ones.”
On behalf of the people of Minnesota, Walz extended his “deepest condolences to the representatives and the families here who have lost loved ones doing the work that makes our lives a little better, doing the work that fuels our economy, doing the work that moves us from place to place.”
Nationwide, about 15 workplace fatalities occur each day, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s roughly one fatal injury every 99 minutes.
In Minnesota, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated 30 workplace fatalities in 2020.
In her remarks, Robertson noted that Workers Memorial Day is timed to coincide with the anniversary of the date, now 50 years ago, that federal legislation creating OSHA went into effect. Minnesota won approval to establish its own OSHA in 1985.
“Workplaces are much safer today than they were before the OSHA Act, but our work is not done,” Robertson said, adding that the legislation “transformed employers’ responsibility to keep workplaces safe.”
Robertson emphasized the need to do more to protect workers who face greater risks on the job, whether due to the dangerous nature of their work or due to factors that may prevent them from understanding their rights and protections on the job, including language and cultural differences.
“A safe workplace isn’t a privilege, it is a right of every worker,” the labor commissioner said. “It’s important that all workers have the information and training they need to be safe at the work site, regardless of what they look like, where they come from or what language they speak.
“If they’re in the workplace, they have a right to a safe work environment.”
That’s a principle shared by labor unions, which have taken a leading role during the pandemic in winning protections for members and all working people. Unions have fought for access to personal protective equipment, ventilation and paid COVID leave, and they have lobbied lawmakers like Walz for emergency workplace health and safety standards.
“With the voice of labor and the voice of legislators to back it up, we made sure we wouldn’t ask someone to go back into an unsafe work condition unless we made sure they were taken care of,” Walz said. “We wouldn’t ask them to go back in there unless we were doing all we could to protect them.”