While emergency workers rushed Monday to revive Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin, Tonya Ford thought of her father and her Uncle Bobby.
Ford said she’d never seen her father cry until the day of her Uncle Bobby’s funeral.
“It wasn’t easy for him to go back to work,” said Ford, who afterward began volunteering for United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, a nonprofit that helps families and communities after occupational deaths. She’s now the group’s director. “Every day, they entered work together for 30 years. They were supposed to retire together.”
Hamlin, 24, suffered cardiac arrest on “Monday Night Football,” giving rise to a renewed recognition of the hazards faced by NFL players. But workplace injuries — and fatalities — are a far more common concern for tens of thousands of U.S. workers.
“We’ve been praying for Damar and his family,” said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America. “We know what it’s like for a loved one to go off to work and not come back.”
Roughly 5,200 U.S. workers died of injuries sustained on the job in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure, averaging nearly 15 fatalities a day, doesn’t include workers who perish as a result of chronic job site hazards, such as black lung disease, cancers from chemical exposure or cardiovascular disease.
Private employers reported an additional 2.6 million nonfatal workplace illnesses or injuries in 2021, according to federal data, a figure experts say is almost surely an undercount because many workers do not report illness and injury for fear of missing work or retribution.
“For vulnerable workers where retaliation is rampant and getting blacklisted is rampant, folks who get injured tend to either deal with it on their own or ignore it,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director at the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.
The Bills on Thursday said Hamlin has “shown remarkable improvement” but remains in critical condition in a Cincinnati hospital.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not specifically track football players, but a broader category includes athletes, coaches and umpires of all sports and levels. On average, 6 out of every 100,000 full-time workers in that category died each year between 2019 and 2021, according to federal data. That’s almost twice the national rate of about 3.5, but far safer than fishing (117 fatalities per 100,000), logging (81) or roofing (53). Sports professionals are twice as safe as painters and paperhangers (11.6) and four times as safe as miners (24).
They’re also paid much better. The median annual earnings for an athlete, coach or referee in 2021 was $39,290 — though the top 10 percent of athletes earned at least $208,000. Meanwhile, the average fisherman earned $28,530 in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The typical logger earned $46,330 as of 2021, while the typical roofer earned $47,110, both slightly above the comparable national figure of $45,760 for all occupations.
“Every day, the average person who walks into some of these essential jobs is putting themselves in danger, and they’re aware of it. But they’re not making professional sports wages,” said Marie Watson, a mechanic at Mission Foods’s factory in Pueblo, Colo., and a steward for the local United Food and Commercial Workers union. She has memories of ambulances pulling up to her factory to treat colleagues experiencing heat illness.
“And a lot of people may argue, ‘Once a week, [NFL players are] putting themselves up to be in a car crash,’” Watson added. “Right: once a week. How about those folks that go in every day?”
Armando Garza, the regional director of manufacturing at Mission Foods, said in a statement that the company had “no record of excessive temperatures being reached in the facility at any time or any such report from the union or employees.” In response to a union request, the company brought in extra cooling units last year, he said.
“We care very deeply about the safety of our employees, listen closely to their needs, and don’t hesitate to take actions to help ensure their comfort and well-being,” Garza said.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision to suspend play between the Bills and Cincinnati Bengals was hailed by occupational safety experts, who said employers too often force workers back on the job after a traumatic event.
“To be having to return to a place of work where your co-worker has just died — and they probably died because there’s no systems in place to protect your safety and well-being — it’s the worst situation we can put workers in,” Martinez said.
But accidents and injuries on many job sites are inevitable, experts concede. That’s why it’s crucial to help employees manage their well-being and mind-set, said Cindy DePrater, chief environmental health and safety officer at Turner Construction, which operates 1,500 construction sites, through which about 100,000 workers pass, each year.
“There’s really four things that get people hurt: rushing, frustration, fatigue or complacency,” DePrater said.
When something happens on a Turner job site, work ceases, she said. Staff members are brought together to talk through what happened, how the people involved are doing and what’s being done about the situation.
Seeing their peers involved in traumatic incidents can weigh heavily on people, DePrater said, so Turner sends counselors within a few hours of occupational accidents to help workers process their feelings: “their shock, their disbelief, their frustration, their sadness.”
Two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, an explosion at an Alabama coal mine killed 13 workers. Roberts, the mine workers union president, rushed to the scene and met with members of the mine rescue team who were unable to reach their deceased comrades or immediately recover their remains.
Federal regulations require rescue workers to be on-call whenever miners are underground, but some of the specially trained emergency crews are stationed up to two hours away.
On Monday, the NFL had 30 medical professionals stationed at Paycor Stadium. Doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center said the rapid response to Hamlin’s deteriorating condition on the field probably saved his life.
The mine rescuers told Roberts they felt like failures, he recalled. In many mining towns, generations of family members work at or near the mine, compounding a community’s trauma after an occupational disaster. For some of the emergency responders, their mission was personal, not just their vocation.
“If you’d have stayed in that mine any longer, you’d have been gone,” Roberts responded. “You guys have to come to grips with the fact that you did not fail here.”
He reminded them, the emergency responders trained to enter their profession’s most treacherous environment, of an old union song: “We just come to work here / We don’t come to die.”