Several weeks ago, we here at the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services released the fatality numbers for 2013. Later this month, I will be speaking in memory of all those Oregon workers.
From the bird's eye view, the news is good. The overall trend in compensable fatalities in Oregon continues to be down, and we certainly show no signs of losing the ground we have fought to gain over the past two or three decades. From the Oregon OSHA perspective, it is worth noting that several of last year's fatalities actually happened outside the state (and even the country), but were covered by Oregon workers' compensation and, therefore, are included in the totals.
So, from the bird's eye view, the picture is encouraging, but I can never be satisfied with that encouraging picture.
The reality is that each of those deaths is a tragedy. An individual lost to family and friends. A person whose dreams and hopes for the future have been cut short. And that tragedy is no less real for those involved if the death is one of 100 or one of 30 or one of 10. Statistics and declining fatality rates are cold comfort when your loved one left for work one day and never returned. That's the reality – and it is a reality that far too many people still face.
When I look at the fatality reports that cross my desk, and particularly when I look at the fatality investigations, I get frustrated. I get angry. And when I look at the inspections where no one was killed but only because of blind luck, I get even angrier. We collectively accept risks that we need not accept. And that is why workers die.
When no one dies at a particular place and time, we too often want to take credit, even if there is no credit to be had. And when a workplace tragedy strikes, we too often want to shrug it off as an unfortunate series of events. We may even see it called a "freak accident" in the news media. But the deaths in Oregon's workplaces are not freak accidents. They are not unpredictable and they are not unpreventable.
What is missing when it comes to achieving the next real reduction in the death rates? I fear, in part, it is a lack of will. It is a belief that we are "pretty good" at dealing with workplace risks and it is a belief that "pretty good" is good enough. As we approach Worker Memorial Day again this year, I ask you to join me in declaring that we can do better.
We can celebrate our successes, but we must never rest upon them as though we have done all that we can do. We have not done what we can or what we should. While we fool ourselves, our friends, our neighbors, and our family members – someone will die. And we will shake our heads. We will wonder what can be done.
The rallying cry for Worker Memorial Day each year is to mourn the dead and fight for the living. Perhaps we need to mourn a bit less – but fight a good bit harder.
Oregon OSHA Administrator
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