This past October, Robert Higgins and Kelvin Mattocks were working on a drain inside a trench below Dartmouth Street in the South End when the earth began to shift. Almost instantly, the men were buried up to their waists when a water supply line feeding a nearby hydrant broke open.
Within seconds, the trench flooded.
That night, members of the Boston Fire Department spent hours carefully digging the bodies out of the mire, and later concluded that the flooded trench was completely without any safety protections. An expandable trench box was on site, but not in use.
Kelvin and Robert’s deaths were, tragically, two of 62 such fatal workplace injuries in 2016. This represents a 10-year high in worker fatality rates in the Commonwealth.
What makes this especially infuriating is that most of these deaths could have been prevented. In past years, the Bay State has consistently ranked as one of the best in the nation for worker safety. However, many people of late may have actually become victims of our state’s strong economy. As more families spend money on their homes, towns spend on roads, and businesses expand and upgrade, 40 percent of worker fatalities in 2016 were construction-related. Furthermore, an analysis of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA’S) Severe Violator Enforcement Program log shows that the overwhelming majority of violators are nonunion. The program focuses on “on recalcitrant employers that endanger workers by committing willful, repeat or failure-to-abate violations.” It’s necessary, since troubling evidence indicates that the race to the bottom in standards and practices has become the business model used by many contractors.
In Kelvin and Robert’s case, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh responded to the public uproar, and acted quickly to prevent such future tragedies. He proposed, and the City Council passed, amendments to the City Code Ordinances that require individuals or businesses receiving work permits to report their current safety record and unresolved issues, including any OSHA violations. The ordinance also allows city officials to reject construction permits based on records of unsafe, hazardous, or dangerous practices.
For workers everywhere, President Donald Trump’s budget for the Department of Labor “will mean more illness, injury and death on the job,” according to Jodi Conti of the National Employment Law Project. In just a few short months, the current administration has already made the American workplace more dangerous by rolling back the OSHA recordkeeping rule, which gave OSHA the authority to issue citations and levy fines on companies that fail to record illnesses, injuries, and deaths that date back as far as five years. This was a vital and necessary rule in a dangerously understaffed and overburdened agency. Additionally, the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, where government contractors would be required to report workplace violations for the previous three years, was revoked by Congress.
Meanwhile, the response to the South End trench collapse suggests that absent more intervention, the Commonwealth’s uncharacteristically high workplace fatality rate could become the new normal.
In the past week, two internationally recognized worker solidarity days have taken place: May Day, and Workers’ Memorial Day. May Day, or International Workers’ Day, is a celebration of the working class, and in the US has more recently become a day to recognize the struggle that immigrants in particular face. Linked to those struggles is Workers’ Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering and recognizing all the men and women who paid the ultimate price for the ordinary act of trying to earn a living. The latter also marks the day that OSHA was established, and continues to act as a reminder of what good government regulation can do.
It’s clear that work protections are under attack at the federal level. But when tragedy struck in Mass, the decision was made that the value of human life should trump profit. Boston officials swiftly passed an ordinance, and on Beacon Hill, Rep. Byron Rushing has proposed implementing similar protections statewide, while Sen. Jennifer Flanagan has introduced legislation which seeks to increase the fine for corporations that commit manslaughter from $1,000 to $250,000. Many of our politicians stepped up when the spotlight shined brightest, but let’s not forget the other workers—immigrants exploited by unscrupulous contractors, road workers, delivery drivers, and some who simply didn’t have a basic harness—who would still be here if proper workplace protections were in place.
Sean Mulkerrin is the Engagement Fellow at the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.