Death from Above

“Maybe you got a kid, maybe you got a pretty wife”—Bruce Springsteen, State Trooper

By Phil La Duke

Every month a colleague sends me the butcher’s bill; a list of the people killed on the job. To a person the death could have been prevented without any notable expenditure. Roofers are frequently the victim slipping and falling from a roof to the ground or concrete below. This happens a lot. In part because one doesn’t need an education to be a roofer or laborer, and in part because in the US and many parts of the world small businesses are except from most of the protections afforded to workers in larger firms. In the U.S. small businesses are sacrosanct; with the possible exception of the elderly, politicians value the voting potential of promising to help small businesses than any other group. The rights of small businesses are political gold, but what about the rights of workers? Roofers, tend to be some of the most poorly trained and take more risks than just about any other small business employees that I can think of, they aren’t even treated as human beings rather they are seen as commodities to be used up. But even if small businesses were (and in some cases they are) subject to safety regulations, most countries lack the resources to focus on small businesses and prefer to go after  bigger companies

What’s worse than the fatalities are those who get injured but take years to die. I am reminded of a dear friend and colleague, Bill Sagy Sr. who decades ago when working as a steel worker he hurt his back. It wasn’t bad enough for him to go out on Workers’ Compensation or Social Security disability, he continued working. And then nearly 40 years later, after increasingly frequent spells where his “back went out”. Almost two years ago he went for a new form of laparoscopic surgery. He was skeptical but by then the pain was unbearable; I spoke to him two weeks after he had the surgery. He was almost euphoric; wistfully telling me how he wished the surgery had been around decades earlier. That was Thursday. On Sunday I received word that he was dead. It seems that Friday he developed a fever, it got worse until his wife rushed him to the emergency room where he collapsed. He was taken to intensive care where he died sometime Saturday. His routine surgery came with a free infection that killed him. Now there are water-heads among you will argue that the back injury so many years ago wasn’t the cause, that it was the infection and the infection alone that killed Bill. I’m not going to argue with those who feel that way, an idiot who enjoys arguing with people who put the time and effort into blogging and arguing an academic point aren’t worth my time.

But let me pander to that thought process for a while, and talk about my ex-father-in-law. He was injured when despite safety rules, Union rules, and common sense was working above me ex-father-in-law when he dropped what was described to me as an angle iron. It free fell three stories and struck my ex-father-in-law in the neck shattering one vertebrae and driving the second into a third. He had what was at the time experimental surgery, and had a cow bone fused into his neck. The surgery was successful and while he couldn’t lift more than 50lbs and was therefore judged permanently disabled. At first his life was pretty good, sure his activities were limited but he wasn’t a guy who golfed, or bowled or did much highly physical stuff. He came to grips with his limitations quickly and with aplomb. The doctors warned him that the cow bone would degrade and he would eventually have to undergo the surgery again. But when that day came he was diagnosed as having mesothelioma and the doctors advised against the surgery. He got addicted first to pain-killers and eventually to heroin he died from the mesothelioma before the heroin killed him. Heroin ate through his family like cancer, eventually my ex-wife got hooked and last year about this time she died of an overdose. If you find it hard to summon sympathy for another dead junky that’s none of my business, but it crushed my daughter and her sister who, while estranged from her at the time, prayed for the day she would straighten out her life. Like most of us, they thought they had more time than it turned out that they did. As Tom Waits wrote in the song Walking Spanish “Even Jesus wanted just a little more time, when he was walking Spanish down the hall”. For me those injuries so long ago caused those injuries and fatalities, but they won’t appear on any chart or make up any statistic. So as safety people slap each other on the back and praise themselves for a job well done, I’m out here watching in disgust. OSHA estimates that half of all injuries go unreported. We can do better.