Johnson: Nobody in Wyoming should ever die for a paycheck
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Johnson: Nobody in Wyoming should ever die for a paycheck

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On September 28, 2018 two Wyoming laborers, 42-year-old Juan Baez-Sanchez and 56-year-old Victor Garcia-Perez, headed to work on a long and narrow dirt trench, which was as deep as 15 feet in some places. Both men were fathers and husbands who had lived and worked in the Jackson area for years.

Dirt trenches are dangerous. A cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as a car. If the wall of a trench collapses on someone, the dirt doesn’t yield. A person even partially buried will be suffocated, because their lungs can’t expand to bring in air.

Victor was working in the trench when part of its dirt wall fell and trapped him. Juan, who had been operating an excavator, jumped into the trench to try to save his friend. More of the wall slumped into the trench, burying and killing them both.

I’ve heard Wyoming’s high rate of workplace fatalities justified and dismissed for years. It’s pass-through truckers. It’s visiting workers from out of state. It’s the nature of Wyoming’s jobs. It’s just the way we work in Wyoming, where workplace fatalities are triple the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

I’d like to ask you to do something with me. Pause right now. Silently count to 31 in your head. Slowly.

Each number represents one person who went to work in Wyoming in 2018 but didn’t make it home alive, says the BLS.

OSHA, created by the U.S. Congress 50 years ago, had one mission: to make jobs safe. Workers in unions and our allies have organized every year to help make that promise become a reality, and we have won countless measures over the decades that have improved job safety, yet our work is far from done. Wyoming will release its study on workplace fatalities in the coming weeks.

The American labor movement fights for safer workplaces, and also to do what we can for those who have been hurt or killed on the job. America’s labor unions advocated for and helped to win permanent compensation for the firefighters and other workers who died or who suffered disabling illnesses and injuries after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Wyoming is a state of working people. Our jobs make our world go around. A very small number of people here are rich enough not to need a paycheck to live, but the rest of us provide for ourselves and our families by the work we do. We drive Wyoming’s economy and keep our schools strong, our highways safe and our outdoor spaces clean. We are the backbone of the great lifestyle we enjoy in this state; keeping us safe at work every day is the highest priority.

Like the heroes of 9/11, today our health care workers and other essential workers rush toward the dangers associated with the coronavirus. The advocacy of the labor movement is particularly important right now, because workplaces have become vectors of contagion because of the coronavirus.

Workers at nursing homes, hospitals and other medical facilities, at grocery stores, manufacturing plants, mines, restaurants and in trucking continually put themselves in danger to provide vital services here in Wyoming and across the rest of the country, as our entire nation has grappled with the dangers and mysteries of a new and shockingly contagious disease. Wyoming workers must be protected while on the job during this time.

April 28 was Workers Memorial Day. Let’s remember those 31 who died in 2018, and let’s do what we can to lessen the risks our workers face on the job. Let’s recall the lives of Juan Baez-Sanchez and Victor Garcia-Perez, and make sure every worker goes home to family and friends at the end of the day.

When the unstable trench wall with no cave-in protection collapsed on that September morning, no one else was near. The minutes ticked by and turned into hours. The abandoned excavator sat beside the trench, its engine idling quietly until a delivery driver noticed something odd about the lack of activity at the scene. In the blink of an eye, two Wyoming workers had been killed. Accidents like this should never happen.

We can do better.

Tammy Johnson is a former public school teacher, a member of the United Steelworkers and the leader of the Wyoming AFL-CIO, the state’s largest coalition of labor union members.

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