The recent news about the deaths of the miners in West Virginia and the workers on the BP oil rig is startling and deeply upsetting. When people die in the workplace, the community suffers. However, there is another story to be told — that of the millions of workers injured at work. Much like the injured veterans who often get forgotten among the war casualty statistics, injured workers’ lives are changed dramatically and few people outside their friends and family give it any thought.
During this election year, many of our candidates for governor are looking for ways to make businesses in our state more profitable and entice other businesses to relocate to Maine. While we want to encourage business growth in Maine, we need to be cognizant of workplace safety and ensure we have appropriate safety standards to protect Maine’s workers.
With the nation discussing businesses, bailouts and the unemployed, it is easy to forget the common worker — the employed. Employed workers aren’t generally “newsworthy.” They simply wake up every day, go to work, pay their bills and live their lives.
While Maine workers may not be a “hot issue” in any election year, they are the cornerstone of our state. They help our businesses succeed. They provide for our children. They pay our taxes. Like businesses, workers are also crucial to the financial well-being of our state.
Unfortunately, Maine workers are in the path of the perfect storm. The bad economy has created situations where businesses have had to lay off employees. At the same time, these same businesses must continue to produce and, oftentimes, must find ways to be more productive to stay afloat. This often means that fewer workers are asked to do more and more work. Given the state of the economy, workers who are physically burdened by the increased workload often cannot find alternative employment and do not want to risk being terminated. The end result is, Maine workers work harder, work faster and often suffer debilitating work injuries.
When businesses are trying to have fewer workers produce more, safety takes a backseat and injuries happen. Some people may argue that safety is less important than a business’ financial success, but tell that to the man who lost the use of both hands in a workplace accident. Tell that to the mother who can no longer pick up her toddler because of a permanent back injury. Tell that to the young man who lost his leg and will need prosthetic replacements for the rest of his life.
The fact is, more than 15,000 working Mainers experience life-altering injuries on the job each year. Making a profit and ensuring worker safety should not be exclusive. Businesses must take appropriate measures to make sure their workers are safe. If they are incapable of doing that, the government should step in.
The recent national tragedies involving deaths due to lack of workplace safety has taught us that we often cannot rely on a business to make worker safety a priority. A strong commitment to workplace safety needs to come from our government regulations and their enforcement.
As the gubernatorial candidates debate how to make the state friendlier to businesses, I hope they also think about how to ensure workplace safety to protect our workers. I hope they remember that the “cost” placed on an injured worker who must struggle to survive after suffering a debilitating injury exceeds the cost of safety measures. The 15,000 serious workplace injuries in Maine each year result in people who end up needing additional services for their injuries through no fault of their own. These injured workers are often restricted from returning to their former employment, suffer significant loss of income, lose access to health insurance and thus have limited access to medical treatment. Many injured workers lose their homes, their families are shattered and their lives irreparably altered.
While our state leaders tout our “quality of life,” let’s hope they actually stand behind that statement and come up with solutions to make sure our branded quality of life extends to all Mainers with safe roads, safe towns and cities, and safe workplaces.
Karen Bilodeau is an attorney and shareholder at the law firm, McTeague Higbee. Her practice is based largely in the Lewiston/Auburn area.