“There are no accidents.” That’s a main theme of Jonathan D. Karmel’s Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace (2017). Karmel, a Chicago-based labor lawyer, talked about his book at a Thursday event organized by the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) and hosted by the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.
Karmel was referring to his observation that most serious workplace injuries and fatalities are not the result of “accidents,” assuming we define them as random, chance events. Rather, they’re the result of negligent or deliberate actions that undermine worker safety and health.
Dying to Work contains plenty of basic facts and statistics about work-related injuries and deaths, as well as a thorough history of workplace safety and health legislation in the United States. The heart of the book, however, is a series of stories of workers and how they were seriously injured or died on the job.
At Thursday’s event in Boston, Karmel focused on the story of Paul King, a husband and father of three children who lived in Massachusetts. Paul had worked in the printing industry for many years until his company closed its doors, a casualty of the digital revolution. He eventually enrolled in a technical school, and in 2005, he was hired by a contractor, MainTech, that did maintenance work at Logan International Airport.
Some two months after starting his new job with MainTech, Paul was sent to the roof of a Logan terminal to work on some wiring. A co-worker on the ground made repeated attempts to call him, with no response. Minutes later, Paul was found on the ground with burns on his hands, face, and shoulder. Efforts to save him failed. It was later determined that he was electrocuted after coming in contact with a live electrical box. After a subsequent investigation, MainTech was cited for eight “serious” violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, covering a failure to provide training and safety equipment, and fined all of $54,000.
Melissa King, Paul’s daughter and now a MassCOSH activist, also spoke at the program and was joined by members of the King family. The pain of losing Paul remains very palpable, yet they have channeled their grief into advocacy for stronger workplace safety protections.
Dying to Work is filled with these accounts, for Karmel smartly understood that a book filled mostly with dry facts and figures would not convey the human impacts of these injuries and losses. In the midst of a busy law practice, he traveled around the country to talk to injured workers and surviving family members in many different occupations, including store clerks, hotel housekeepers, miners, nurses, grain handlers, and others.
In rendering his assessment, Karmel ultimately concluded that “all of these deaths and injuries were preventable,” and he urges us to understand that these stories are “a tip of the proverbial iceberg” in terms of the deadly hazards that workers face across the country. He hopes that Dying to Work will contribute to a dialogue about how to prevent these deadly events from occurring, and I believe he is succeeding at that.