When workers are hurt or killed on the job their families should receive benefits

Sometimes change can come from tragedy. The good that comes from change cannot erase the harm that was done — the pain and injury — but it can lead to better ways of doing things.

In 1911, a New York City factory — three floors near the top of the Asch Building, too high to be reached by firemen’s ladders — burned, killing 146 workers. News accounts of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire are stunning: “I learned a new sound that day,” wrote reporter William Gunn Shepard, “a sound more horrible than description can picture — the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk.”

Most of the victims were young immigrant women, working 52 hours a week, sewing blouses, for $7 to $12 in pay. The victims couldn’t get out on fire escapes — there was only one — and they couldn’t take the stairs on some of the floors because the owners had locked the doors to prevent workers from stealing or taking breaks.

There were no sprinklers to quell the flames.

So, forced out by flames and smoke, many of the workers jumped; the firemen’s safety nets couldn’t hold them as they came from the eighth, ninth, and 10th floors.

The front page of The New York Herald on March 26, 1911, the day after the fire, pictured crumpled women’s bodies on the pavement. The headline blared “Hundred and fifty perish in factory fire; women and girls, trapped in ten story building, lost in flames or hurl themselves to death.”

News spread across America. On March 27, the headline on The Evening Post in Frederick, Maryland, said, “No fire escapes — over a hundred perish.”

The tragedy helped inspire the growth of the labor movement and also led to regulations and laws to better protect factory workers. In the two years following the Triangle factory fire, 60 bills, recommended by the Factory Investigation Commission, were passed into law.

We thought about the Triangle factory fire because of a story we printed last month on a Guilderland business, Countryside Tree Care, being fined $140,000 for a wood-chipper death. The owner of the business, Tony Watson, did not have workers’ compensation insurance in May when a young man — a day laborer, working for Countryside for the first time that day — was killed in a woodchipper.

Employers are required to carry the insurance — part of the reform that followed the Triangle fire — to cover medical care and provide weekly cash benefits to people injured on the job; it also pays death benefits to the worker’s family in the case of a workplace fatality.

On May 12, we had devoted the top of our front page to the story of Justus Booze — his life and death. Guilderland reporter Elizabeth Floyd Mair described how the 23-year-old thought his family could use the $60 he’d earn for a day of work at the tree-cutting company.

His family included his fiancée, Kristen Hickey, and her two children. Hickey and Booze had planned to marry that month at Schenectady’s city hall. Booze had no other family; he knew of no living relatives. He had been a ward of the state, in foster care, and homeless before he and Hickey and her children became a family.

We ran a picture of the note Hickey’s 7-year-old daughter wrote “to God” soon after the accident. The young girl’s note told God that He had no right to take her stepfather. It ends with “bad God, bad God, bad.”

We are troubled that, because Hickey and Booze weren’t yet married and because New York State doesn’t recognize common-law marriage, Hickey would see none of the benefits if Watson had followed what the law required nor would she derive any benefits from a wrongful death suit.

This is not fair. Justus Booze served the role of provider for the children who saw him as a stepfather. He died doing it.

Beyond that, Watson, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration that investigated the death, failed to ensure only trained workers used the chipper. OSHA levied $141,811 in fines against Watson.

Floyd Mair did extensive research, reported in a Nov. 17 front-page story, on the specifics of those charges. She talked to the manufacturer of the machine that killed Booze.

He was killed in a Bandit 250. All Bandit 250s come with an operator’s manual and safety-training DVD, said Jerome Galante, general counsel for Bandit Industries. The manual, he said, is tethered to the machine and cannot be removed.

The time and money that Bandit has put into safety is “unbelievable,” said Galante, “because we do not want to see workers hurt…We stress the training, we stress it. But you cannot force people to do things.”

The only sort of “force” that’s available is apparently the levied fines — and the press coverage that goes with them.

Floyd Mair reports this week that Watson is contesting the OSHA fines.

Matt London of the North East New York Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, told Floyd Mair that, generally, when employers contest their fines, significant fines, like those against Watson, are reduced. “From what little I know about the size of his company, this is, I’m sure, a crippling fine,” said London.

If we weigh a “crippling fine” against the loss of a man’s life, we conclude the fine should not be reduced.

Workers need protection. And, if regulations meant to safeguard them are flouted, the employer needs to bear responsibility.

Watson cut more than trees; he cut corners. According to the OSHA charges, there were myriad unsafe practices by workers who weren’t trained. Watson did not belong to the Tree Care Industry Association, which offers safety training and accreditation to member companies.

“I like to say that the equipment itself it not inherently dangerous. It’s dangerous when used incorrectly,” said Peter Gerstenberger, senior adviser for safety, compliance, and standards with the association.

Booze can’t be brought back to life and fines won’t help his fiancée or her children but they may at least prevent others from getting hurt.

After OSHA announced its fines, Hickey told us that no amount of fines could be levied to undo the damage done through what she called Countryside’s “pure negligence.” Booze’s death could have been prevented “with more caution,” she said.

We want others to learn from this: Cutting corners — not properly training workers who use dangerous machines — can cost a man his life.

We’d also like to see a change in the law so that the family of a man can receive the benefits to which they are rightfully entitled.

Americans who have never married are at a record high, according to a report from the Pew Research Center. In 1960, only 9 percent of Americans age 25 and older had never married. Now, over 20 percent — more than double — have never married.

“The shares of adults cohabiting and raising children outside of marriage have increased significantly,” the Pew report says.

Just as the Triangle factory fire inspired new laws, so, too, should this.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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