In honor of Workers' Memorial Day (the international day is actually tomorrow), Mayors Madeline Rogero and Tim Burchett, along with representatives of worker advocacy groups Bridges to Justice, Jobs with Justice, among others, and families and friends of workers who died on the job met for a ceremony at the City-County Building this afternoon.
Rogero and Burchett proclaimed the day Workers' Memorial Day in Knoxville and Knox County in front of a group of about 75 people.
Rogero greeted the group, including her "union brothers and sisters," and recalled her speech at yesterday's budget luncheon. "I started [by] talking about our employees," she said, adding that she's proposed a 2.5 percent raise for all city employees. She also spoke about the city's new hybrid pension plan, which still gives defined benefits to those who earn up to $40,000.
Burchett told a story about his father's time in the Pacific during World War II. His father, a train mechanic before the war, helped repair a water purifier while on a Pacific island near Japan.
"This country's tradesmen and its workers are a whole lot like my daddy. They are just in a situation where they did what was right. They used their training in a practical application. They do that every daggum day," he said.
Ken Silver, an associate professor of environmental health at East Tennessee State University's College of Public health, enlisted several of his doctoral students to help author a study, the first of its kind in Tennessee, that looked at how many worker fatalities there were in the state in 2011 and 2012. The study, which used reports from several state agencies, found about 180 people had died on the job in Tennessee during those years. At the memorial ceremony, Silver pointed out that the problem of worker fatalities and injuries is "wholly man made" and gave several recommendations on how to improve working conditions on construction sites.
"It takes OSHA eight years to a make a new rule," Silver said, which is why government agencies and governing bodies, and corporations should make changes now.
Silver's main argument was that companies should develop comprehensive injury and illness prevention programs, including better insurance plans. The study says the practice is an effective way to reduce injury and illness on the job, and Silver added that it raises worker morale.
"One would hope that improved worker morale...would be enough" to get companies to create these policies on their own, Silver said. But as far as economic incentives for companies, there is no definite benefit aside from possible reduction in worker compensation payment if injuries are reduced.
Fran Ansley, a retired UT law professor, also had several recommendations for improving worker safety. One big way worker injuries and deaths could be reduced, she said, was by making sure the state and state agencies contract with responsible companies, not just the lowest bidder.
Ansley said that would actually be fairly easy for the Tennessee Department of Transportation to do. It could reform or edit its pre-qualification process for choosing contracting companies to include checks on records of safety violations or worker abuse.
The state also uses a point system to reward companies as they do the job, Ansley said, but the points awarded for safety "get overwhelmed by the others." Ansley would like to see that change.
"We'd like to see that be an overt priority [for TDOT]," she said.
Gloria Johnson, one of Knoxville's state legislators, was on hand to read names of workers who'd died on the job int he last two years. Though she hadn't read the worker fatality report yet, she said she was interested in what it had to say.
In response to Ansley's recommendation that the state only contract with responsible companies, Johnson said, "I think it's reasonable [for the state] as far as saving lives. You get what you pay for."
She added that when someone sustains an injury or dies on the job, the work stops and puts the whole project behind, costing the state more money.
The ceremony also included the stories of a few East Tennessee workers who were killed on the job, including Michael Tallent, a 27-year-old Knoxvillian who had been working at the Kuwahee Wastewater Treatment Plant on Neyland Dr. when he was accidentally electrocuted to death when a crane came into contract with power lines last New Year's Eve. He'd been working there for two months.
"The stories you just heard could've been..multiplied many times over," said David Linge, who works with Jobs with Justice.
A bell was rung for each East Tennessean who'd been killed on the job.