Honor Workers Every Day
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
September 6, 2010 p. A7

On Wednesday, Tom Fosdick died from injuries sustained Monday, when he fell while replacing Boyd Law Building windows.

On Tuesday, President Obama reported to the American people that we are, at last, out of Iraq -- albeit leaving 50,000 troops, uncounted mercenaries and contract employees.

In the course of his speech, he paid honor to the "over 4,400 Americans who have given their lives in Iraq."

It is appropriate that he do so. Those who put their lives at risk in the streets and sands of Iraq, and made the ultimate sacrifice, certainly are entitled to our respect and honor.

But there are another "over 4,000" American workers who also have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. They, too, are entitled to our respect and honor.

Fosdick has joined their number.

In 2006, there were 5,865 workplace deaths. In 2009, there were 4,340. Apparently a benefit from millions of unemployed is that if they don't have a workplace they're much less likely to be killed in one. Even one year's 4,340 dead workers is the rough equivalent of seven years' dead in Iraq. And 5,865 is more than twice the 2,752 killed on Sept. 11.

Moreover, add in the number of workplace non-fatal injuries and diseases and the number in 2008 was more like 3.7 million.

These are the men and women who build and maintain what our military is defending, and the rest of us take for granted. They are the ones who have done the sometimes literally backbreaking work, who risk injury, disease and death on a daily basis. They built the high-rise office buildings and condos, the highways and bridges, hospitals and schools, the networks of power lines and natural gas pipelines. Three of them died building our Hancher Auditorium. Now another has died refurbishing our law school.

Their ancestors built the canals and railroads that spanned our continent. They now maintain those railroads and subways. They sweat in 100-degree heat in the foundries that produce our tractors.

They construct the wind farms, cell phone towers, and radio and TV towers (and then have to climb them to change the little red light bulb on top) -- including the 11 workers who constructed the 2,063-foot antenna tower in North Dakota for KVLY-TV.

Fortunately, none of those 11 died. The 11 on the BP offshore oil rig did. And so did the 29 coal miners working in an unsafe Massey mine a couple weeks earlier. We've yet to hear the fate of the 13 in last week's Gulf offshore oil rig explosion.

I find it hard to understand those in business and legislatures who sacrifice workplace safety for profits, do everything in their power to beat down unions, OSHA funding, project labor agreements, the right to a livable wage or even an increase in the minimum wage. How can they be mystified as to why Iowa's young folks leave the state for jobs in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois?

As someone who spends his days doing finger exercises on computer keyboards, I am in awe of what these men and women are able to do, and are willing to risk in the process. I stop to speak with them when I go into the law building.

But we don't introduce ourselves and certainly don't exchange business cards. So while I've met and visited with Fosdick's mother and brother, I don't know if Fosdick was ever among the workers with whom I visited, though I like to believe he was.

For me, the memory of Fosdick, the gift of his organs to others, will be something like the tomb of the unknown soldier at Arlington. Someone for whom I grieve, who symbolizes the others we will never know but should remember to recognize and honor every day.
Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner, teaches at the University of Iowa College of law.