Local Building Trades unions gathered April 29 for a solemn ceremony marking Workers Memorial Day, a national event to highlight the need for greater workplace safety and to remember workers who were killed on the job or who have died from work-related injuries or illnesses over the past year.
“The deaths that occurred this past year could have been prevented, some of them readily, some with a bit more effort,” said featured speaker Nancy Leppink, Minnesota’s new commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry. How? “[T]aking a bit more time to identify hazards and risks, taking a bit more time to think through the steps of a process, taking a bit more time to plan, to communicate and to train — so safety and health is built into every step, engrained in every motion and is at the forefront of every mind.”
The Workers Memorial Day event took place at the Workers Memorial Garden on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol, organized by the Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council and the Saint Paul Building and Construction Trades Council.
Leppink and other speakers addressed the crowd of several dozen people which included union representatives and family members of some of the deceased.
Workers’s lives, Leppink said, “are not a number to be factored into an economic analyisis, to be weighed in a balance, or left on the negotiating table.”
“Prevention requires constant vigilance and a culture that supports that vigilance by everyone on a construction site, no matter the color of the hard hat. Safety and health must be valued over quality, quantity and meeting deadlines,” Leppink said.
Nationally, one in five workplace fatalities occur in the construction industry, noted Jessica Looman, executive director of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council. “Every construction worker death is one too many,” Looman said.
As a cool, brisk spring breeze blew, a color guard from Cretin-Derham Hall school in St. Paul presented the colors, flags flapping in the wind. A bell rang out at the reading of each of the names of six Building Trades members who died in the past year from a workplace accident or work-related injury or illness. A black sash was placed on a white cross bearing each of their names. The ceremony concluded with the sounds of a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace,” who approached the memorial crowd, then continued playing as he slowly walked away up the hill towards the State Capitol.
The six Building Trades members who died in the past year from a work-related cause who were remembered included:
• Joshua Bosch, age 38, member of Elevator Constructors Local 9;
• Joseph Hill, Sr., age 43, member of Operating Engineers Local 49;
• Kyle Jappe, age 25, member of Operating Engineers Local 49;
• Lawrence R. Provost, age 82, member of Heat and Frost Insulators Local 34;
• Travis Rost, age 39, member of Sheet Metal Workers Local 10;
• Jake Lee Villa, age 28, member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 292.
Dan Gustafson, former president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, also was remembered at the event. Gustafson, age 91, died March 21, 2019. He was a member of Plasterers Local 65 who went on to become business manager of the Minneapolis Building Trades Council and president of the Minnesota State Building Trades Council.
In years past, the list of Building Trades workers remembered at this annual event often has skewed towards long-retired workers whose lives were claimed by work-related illnesses.
Most of the names on this year’s list, however, notably were workers whose lives were tragically cut short, relatively young men who were not only skilled trades workers but who also were among them honored US military veterans, passionate outdoorsmen, beloved husbands, fathers, brothers, sons.
Rod Villa, 41-year member of IBEW Local 292, stood by the cross labled with the name of his son, Jake, and wore a photo of Jake around his neck.
Family members of Joshua Bosch, who died just two months ago, traveled all the way from North Dakota to attend the event, including his wife Stephanie and their two daughters, along with his mother and step-father.
Rod Villa, IBEW Local 292 member (right), stood by a cross bearing the name of his son Jake, also a Local 292 member, who died in a workplace accident September 20, 2018 at age 28. St. Paul Building and Construction Trades Council executive secretary Don Mullin (left) placed a black sash on the cross.
“As we leave here today, let’s redouble our efforts to make sure every worker makes it home safely,” said Dan McConnell, business manager of the Minneapolis Building Trades Council.
Each year on the occassion of Workers Memorial Day, the AFL-CIO releases an annual report, “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect,” which reviews and analyzes workplace fatalities and puts a spotlight on the continuing fight to improve workplace safety. This year’s report found that Minnesota had the 28th highest rate of workplace fatalities in the nation. View the full report here.
This year’s report also emphasizes how, under the Trump administration, “important safety and health protections have been repealed or weakened” while Trump has also appointed individuals with a track record of opposition to health and safety enforcement.