National Workers Memorial to be dedicated in Silver Spring

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

After years of quiet memorial ceremonies and agitation for a permanent monument for workers who die on the job, thousands of bricks have been put into place on a grassy campus in Silver Spring.

One of the bricks is etched with the name of Scott Watson, who died in 1992 at the Bethlehem Steel mill in Sparrows Point, Md., on a shift that was supposed to go to his friend Jerry Ernest.

The National Workers Memorial will be dedicated Wednesday -- days after seven workers died in a blast at the Tesoro petroleum refinery in Anacortes, Wash.; after 29 miners were killed in an explosion in Montcoal, W.Va.; and after 11 crew members disappeared with an oil rig off the Louisiana coast.

Those recent incidents mark a high-profile stretch of mass-casualty workplace accidents in the United States. The toll, though, is not unusual: 5,214 workers were killed on the job in 2008, according to the most recent federal statistics. It was the first year of a deep recession, and the tally represented a 17-year low. It also meant 14 deaths a day. The year before, the daily average was about 15.

In the past six months, a worker died cutting a tree in Bethesda, and another died harvesting cotton in Texas. One was killed moving luggage in Seattle, and another was hit by a forklift in Phoenix.

Ernest studied safety at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, which was founded as a training center by the AFL-CIO in 1969. The brick he bought for Watson lies near black marble benches at the memorial on campus. More than 300 have been engraved.

Ernest spent more than a decade after Watson's accident working on his own kind of monument: improving safety at the now-Russian-owned mill.

Partnering with company officials, the steelworkers' union took on a broad safety role and increased training, and the mill had a dozen-year stretch without adding to its "death list."

"We never wanted to add another name," Ernest said.

Then there was one in 2008, and another in February.

'Employee #1'

Ernest should never have taught Watson about Tastykake strawberry pies. Once Watson knew about the stash for sale at the plant's Tin Mill restaurant, "he would wipe 'em out," Ernest said.

Ernest weighed in at almost twice Watson's 160 pounds, and when the two drank together, washing down the day's grime, Ernest would have to stick up for Watson when the smaller man got "squirrelly."

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