Remember our fallen steelworkers

The annual observance of Worker Memorial Day, traditionally marked by unions toward the end of April, carries a poignant note this year in the Ohio Valley because of a conspicuous absence: There is no commemoration taking place at the statue of the Steelworker at the entrance to Steubenville at University Boulevard and Dean Martin Boulevard.

It is indicative of the end of a century of steelmaking at what was best known as Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel. The once active United Steelworker Local 1190 in Steubenville has reached a point where it doesn’t have its building open anymore and the work of organizing the memorial has fallen by the wayside.

But at USW Local 2911 at ArcelorMittal Weirton, the commemoration will take place at the Steelworkers Memorial Park. The names of 117 workers who died on the job between 1919 and 1999 at the Weirton steel plant will be read.

It’s a sobering thought. There was a time in heavy industry when families knew in the back of their minds that dad might not be coming home. When he left with his lunch bucket and hard hat to go to work, he was putting his life on the line as part of the pact for earning a wage to feed and house and clothe and educate his family.

It’s thus necessary to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their families, as well as to pay them a debt of gratitude for the improvements in safety that have occurred during the past century.

The AFL-CIO notes that the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed four decades ago, changing the way workplaces deal with worker safety. It’s not just heavy industry but every office employee, every restaurant worker, every healthcare worker, indeed everyone who works outside the home, who benefits from the safety improvements that occurred.

Yes, those improvements come at a cost to employers and to the economy, but the human cost is incalculable for each life that would be lost, each life made less liveable due to injury or illness from job conditions.

Ask the families of those who have fathers or grandfathers or brothers or sisters who are ill or who died on the job if the cost of worker safety is worth it.

Other countries have made gains on American factories and employment because of a lack of such standards, but protests by workers in places like China show that safe and healthy working conditions are a basic standard all human beings want to achieve.

The times may change and factories will come and go. But the need to stay safe on our jobs does not change.

We join Local 2911 in saluting those who gave their lives for their jobs, and remind all workers that all those sometimes cumbersome safety rules exist for a reason, one often written in blood.