David Hecker: What does Damar Hamlin have to do with worker safety? More than you think.

January 29, 2023 5:10 am

Buffalo Bills fan Dustin Peters attends a candlelight vigil for Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin at University of Cincinnati Medical Center on January 03, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest and is in critical condition following the Bills’ Monday Night Football game against the Cincinnati Bengals. | Jeff Dean/Getty Images

When Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the football field a few weeks ago, fans and fellow players alike looked on in horror — while NFL officials were ready to get back to business. 

The coaches of both the Bills and their opponents, the Cincinnati Bengals, insisted on postponing the game, but before that, they were instructed that play would resume after a five-minute warmup period.

Fortunately, Hamlin survived, and I join fans across the nation in wishing him a speedy recovery. The outpouring of support for Hamlin was tremendous from millions raised for his toys for kids program, to extensive media coverage, to T-shirts and signage all wishing Hamlin well. Fans of all teams and many others rallied in support of this gifted athlete. 

But this incident — and the initial response from league officials — underscores a problem that extends far beyond the NFL. Every year, about 125,000 workers in the U.S. die or become disabled because of workplace hazards, including nearly 5,000 traumatic injuries and 120,000 work-related illnesses — and in all likelihood, these numbers are undercounts. 

This immense loss happens in relative obscurity, as these workers are not gifted athletes in the public eye, and we don’t have strong enough safeguards to hold employers accountable. And from everything I have read about what a good man Hamlin is, I am sure he would agree that these 125,000 are no less important than he is.

To all those who have expressed support for Damar Hamlin or outrage at the conduct of league officials, I urge you to channel that energy into fighting for safe working environments for all working people.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, workplace safety issues only got worse, as frontline workers, many of whom were already underpaid, were expected to put themselves at risk daily to keep things running. Even with many strategies available to mitigate those risks — adequate PPE, paid sick leave for ill or exposed employees, mask requirements for customers — some employers failed to do their part to keep workers safe. 

But while the pandemic has exacerbated workplace safety concerns and shone a light on the all-too-common mistreatment of working people, this problem existed long before COVID-19 and will continue to exist even if the virus disappears tomorrow.

Nebraska convenience store stressing masks aren’t required, June 11, 2021 | Susan J. Demas

Throughout the COVID crisis, and in general, the workers most affected by safety hazards on the job are those who are most marginalized, including immigrants, Black and Latino workers, older workers and low-income workers, all of whom face discrimination that makes advocating for their right to safe workplaces more difficult. 

Most workplace incidents don’t spark the kind of public outcry we saw in response to Hamlin’s — in many cases, the public isn’t informed about workers’ injuries, illnesses, or deaths at all. Who, then, is there to guarantee they and their families will be compensated and their employers will be accountable?

More than 50 years ago, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) created new standards for workplace safety. Like most progress in workers’ rights, it was hard-won by working people who stood together to demand better conditions. Now, it falls to us to continue their work, both by defending existing OSHA regulations from conservative attempts to roll them back and by continuing to push for further progress.

Congress — and Michigan lawmakers, who have the power to create in-state OSHA rules as long as they are at least as strict as federal guidelines — should look at a wide range of necessary reforms, but two major priorities would help protect workers across the country:  expand OSH Act coverage and ensure the department tasked with enforcing it is fully funded and staffed.

To the first point, several categories of workers, including  workers thought to be adequately protected by previously existing safety laws, are not included in OSH Act coverage, leaving them at risk and without a set structure to deal with workplace hazards. Harsher penalties for OSH Act violations are also necessary, as the current fines — less than $5,000 for a serious violation, and less than $10,000 for killing a worker — aren’t enough to deter irresponsible practices.

Of course, regulations are only useful if they’re being enforced properly, which is why it’s critical that the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) has all the necessary resources and staff to serve its purpose. Under the Trump administration, the agency was hamstrung by a lack of staff and leadership, a problem the Biden administration is working to rectify.

Nearly everyone can agree on one fundamental point: Working people shouldn’t have to risk their health and safety. Damar Hamlin is on the mend, but working people across the country are still at risk. 

The question is: What are we, as a country, willing to do about it?


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David Hecker
David Hecker

David Hecker was the president of AFT Michigan. Previously, he was secretary-treasurer of the state federation. A member of the AFT executive committee, Hecker was first elected as an AFT vice president in 2004.