Our Turn | Death in Springfield a reminder of continued need to improve workplace safety


Gregory David Fields reported to work at Springfield’s Capital Airport on Monday, April 10, just like any other day on the job for this longtime HVAC service worker. But it was far from just any day at work.

An explosion caused blunt-force injuries and cost Fields his life at the age of 55. His wife, children and grandchildren were left picking up the pieces: setting up funeral arrangements, writing his obituary, mourning his untimely passing.

The incident is under investigation. But we cannot and will not let Mr. Fields’ legacy be just another workplace tragedy. He is one of us, a member of United Association Local 137.

Fields’ family is graciously joining us Friday at our headquarters in Springfield for Workers Memorial Day, where we annually take time to honor the men and women who have died on the job — and call for stronger workplace safety regulations in Illinois.

Passage of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act more than 50 years ago made a promise to every worker that they had the right to a safe job. So many people died and were seriously injured needlessly in the workplace before OSHA passed. The labor movement and our allies made it our singular mission to win protections that keep workers safe.

But as the sad story of Mr. Fields and too many like him shows, we have much more to do regarding workplace safety.

While good jobs are disappearing, workers’ wages are stagnant and inequalities for minority workers are increasing. Many workplace hazards are unregulated today, and penalties are too low for violations.

Some employers contract out unsafe work to try to avoid any responsibility. Workers who do the right thing and report dangerous conditions or injuries are not rewarded — they are punished, fired or disciplined in some unfair way.

As consumers, we too often do not think of the sacrifices workers make every day to provide the goods and services we take for granted. At statehouses in Illinois and across the country, and in our nation’s capitol, pro-business advocates are constantly looking for ways to roll back the safety protections and rights in place today, and to block new, common-sense safeguards.

Our efforts will not be stalled or ignored. We use Workers Memorial Day to draw new energy for every Mr. Fields and thousands of other workers who need our help.

We unite as one voice in organized labor for safe jobs free from interference by employers looking to cut corners — regardless of workers’ race, gender, workplace role or background. When we improve the way work is done at airports, in restaurants, at shipping centers, we improve our standard of life and our communities.

On this Workers Memorial Day, join us for stronger safety and health protections for the workers in all our lives who deserve better. We urge Congress and our state policymakers to do more to prevent workplace hazards that spread infectious diseases, expose us to toxic chemicals and heat illnesses, and put our lives at risk senselessly.

For Gregory David Fields and all other Illinoisans who have died in Illinois workplaces, we fight for better. Everyone deserves to go home safely at the end of the workday.

Tim Drea is president of the Illinois AFL-CIO. Aaron Gurnsey is business manager of Plumbers, Steamfitters & HVACR Techs Local 137.

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April 25, 2023 at 05:09PM

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