Every day, 12 workers die on the job across America. As the nation’s secretary of labor, I am surrounded by numbers about jobs, the labor market and about the economy more broadly. But the number 12 stays with me. It is a haunting reminder of the hard-working Americans we lose every day, often in the prime of their life, filled with the energy that we need to build a better world.

Sheri Sangji was one of these Americans, so full of promise. She was a 23-year-old research assistant in a lab at the University of California at Los Angeles, looking forward to a career that would allow her to pursue her interests in chemistry, law and the rights of women and immigrants.

One day, while performing an experiment with highly reactive chemicals, a flash fire ignited her clothes and skin, causing fatal burns. Sheri had not been properly trained in the handling of the chemical that set off the blaze.

I later met her family, a loving and tight-knit group of people. The weight of their loss was nearly unbearable. I think about them every day.

To remember Sheri Sangji and all others who die on the job across our country, we observe Workers Memorial Day every April 28. We remember families who have lost a loved one because of workplace injuries, and we pledge to continue fighting tirelessly to make sure that no worker trades a life for a livelihood.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is the agency in my department that sets and enforces standards that ensure every American comes home at the end of a shift. In 1970, when President Richard Nixon created the agency, 38 workers died every day.

Forty years later, we have gone from 38 to 12. This decline is the result of people working together, marshalling the combined efforts of private industry, government, trade unions and academia to create safe and healthful workplaces for every worker in America. It shows that it’s possible to save lives through common sense safety and health standards and strong enforcement of the law.

I believe that we can keep doing better. I will not let up until we do.

That’s why this week I announced our new public outreach campaign to educate workers and employers about what they must do to prevent deadly falls in construction. Falls are the leading cause of worker fatalities in the construction industry — a sector that accounts for almost one in every five worker deaths in the country.

No matter how many times I meet with families like the Sangjis, it never gets easier. No words can ever adequately express my sorrow.

Yet the strength of character I witness in almost every one of these meetings inspires me. It renews my passion for standing up for workers every day by leading this department in their honor. Almost universally, the single most important need that these bereaved families express is the goal of preventing another family from going through the same unspeakable suffering.

We are never prepared to say goodbye to the people we love, but we are even less so when we send our loved ones off for a day’s work. It is our duty to ensure that all workers and employers recognize the need to make safety a priority and to stand behind our firm conviction that workplace injuries and fatalities are entirely preventable.

Today, I appeal to everyone to carry that message to your families and communities. Speak up about your support for the fundamental right to a safe and healthful workplace. Share your stories.

Finally, take a moment to remember the workers who have been taken from us too soon.

Making a living shouldn’t include dying.

Hilda L. Solis is the U.S. secretary of labor; she wrote this for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.


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