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Jordan Barab
5 February 2003

I find myself strangely conflicted these past few days. Watching the space shuttle disintegrate, seeing distraught families, the public memorials, sadness throughout the world, moving stories of the astronauts - all adding to the accumulated sadness of the past few years.

The conflict comes from the fact that my work - all of our work - deals with death and illness every day - in many ways the same death that the astronauts faced. They died doing their jobs, just as (statistically) about 120 other Americans died doing their jobs last week. (not including the 165 who die every day of occupational related disease, of course)

We generally never hear about the others - the 18 who die in the workplace every single day. We don't hear about them mainly because they're just regular people and most of them die one at a time, often in small towns, publicly memorialized only in a short, one-day newspaper article.

Some never even seem to have names, because the names are withheld until the next-of-kin is notified, and by the time that happens, the media has lost interest.

Factory explosion

Factory flaws
The West Pharmaceutical Services plant in Kinston, North Carolina, a factory with a recent record of serious safety breaches, exploded killing four employees and injuring 35, at least 10 seriously. It had been cited in November 2002 for 22 serious safety violations, for which it agreed to pay a $9,075 (£5,500) fine. Inspectors did not revisit the plant, but accepted a photo as evidence that the potentially life-threatening breaches had been addressed.
Christian Science Monitor, 3 February 2003
 • Risks 91, 1 February 2003

Because of the shuttle crash and the huge pharmaceutical products plant explosion in North Carolina, last week was a bit different. These dead were "luckier." They died in larger groups and when people die or are injured in large groups, they get more press. A fund has been set up for the children of the astronauts.

Following the North Carolina explosion, almost every paper in the country had a story and carried the names of those who died (at least the first three who died at the site). The local papers even had their photos and stories of their lives.

The more we know, the sadder we are. We can admire their ambition and their struggles, we can identify with their parents, children or spouses:

Astronaut's hometown never took 'no' for an answer

In the early 1960's, when Kalpana Chawla was born, the birth of a boy in this north Indian city prompted celebrations and congratulatory visits. The birth of a girl was met and still is, often - with quiet disappointment. Kalpana, the youngest of four children, and the third girl, seemed to sense that reality, her brother, Sanjay, said, and from early on was shaped by it.

"She was determined, "`I'm going to tell these guys I'm not just another girl,"' Sanjay Chawla said on Saturday. "She was going to be better than the boys."

In the early narrative of Kalpana Chawla's abruptly truncated life, there is a disquieting undercurrent, of the girl who was always being told "no," simply because she was a girl.

But overpowering it is the story of the girl who refused to be dissuaded, and who in her clarity of aim and strength of will did her part to reshape India's complicated gender calculus.

New York Times, 2 February 2003

The Red Cross initially listed Faye Wilkins among the survivors. Her family waited for news late into the night Wednesday at Immanuel Baptist Church near the plant.

"They just kept telling us she was fine, but we couldn't find her," Tonia Ormonds, 28, Wilkins' daughter, told The News & Observer of Raleigh.

Firefighters later said they could hear Wilkins screaming when they charged into the plant. Her legs and shoulders were pinned by two steel beams, and her best friend was struggling to free her.

Wilkins died there. The friend survived.

Wilkins, 50, had two sons and a daughter, three young grandchildren, and a husband from whom she was separated. She worked at West for 17 years, most recently handling raw rubber from mixing vats.

"Every morning, when she comes through that break room, she's going to speak to you," co-worker Eddie Gray told The News & Observer. "It's always, `Good morning. How are you?' That's what you need at work."

I'm apparently not completely alone in these feelings. The Washington Post had an interesting editorial this week, noting that four U.S. soldiers died this week in a helicopter crash at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan:

"Like the seven astronauts who perished Saturday, they were volunteers, taking on risks they understood well in service of their country. Beyond their units and their families, their deaths attracted little notice -- a paragraph or two in some newspapers, not even that in others."

The Post notes that the astronauts are mourned because they "come to embody national aspirations of greatness, and human aspirations to reach beyond ourselves" but suggest that "we might spare a moment also for the four who died near Bagram, and the others most of us will never hear about…. a total of 47 deaths [in Afghanistan] since the fall of 2001."

"The prayers of a nation were offered yesterday in memory of seven astronauts and their families, and rightly so. They gave everything in service to the nation, as did the Bagram four and so many more."

So these are the questions I'm left with: What determines how much press a workplace death gets? Number killed at same time? If the 18 people who die every day in America's workplaces all died at the same time, there would be national headlines. Most, however, die one at a time, hardly noticed by anyone except their family, friends and co-workers.

What about heroism? Does the fact that you "knowingly" face danger for a higher cause make you a hero? Fighting against terrorism in Afghanistan? Exploring the frontiers of space?Knowingly working in a dangerous workplace to feed you family?

What about giving your life for your country? Did the astronauts sacrifice their lives for the country, or for the exciting work that they had always dreamed of doing? What about the public works employee who dies in an unmonitored manhole? Did he give his life for his city?

Is a life valued more because someone volunteers for dangerous work? Some volunteer to join the armed forces, possibly to be sent overseas and killed for their country. Others "volunteer" to do hazardous work on construction sites, where they might die working to feed their families. Is it more courageous going into battle or space, knowing that your "employer" is sparing no expense to make sure you get out of it safely, or does it take more courage to go down into a 10-foot deep unshored trench, knowing your employer couldn't care less if you live or die?

The embodiment of "National aspirations of greatness?" and "human aspirations to reach beyond ourselves?" What about normal human aspirations to go to work in the morning and come home alive in the evening?

Of course, maybe the guys in the trench and the people in the Columbia have more in common than we think. There have been a number of articles in the Post and other papers about cutbacks in safety and maintenance that have reached alarming proportions in the eyes of some experts.

NASA Was Told in 1990 About Vulnerable Tiles
Safety an Issue Since the 90's
Experts Warned Of Budget Cuts, Safety Concerns
NASA dismissed advisers who warned about safety

Below is a list that I culled from Google of all who died in the workplace over the past week. In addition to the deaths in North Carolina, the Shuttle and Afghanistan, I came up with ten. Statistically, somewhere around 100 more workers were killed in their workplaces last week.

Even if their children don't get college funds and they don't get a speech by the President, or even their picture in the local newspaper, they deserve a little recognition as well. They're out there somewhere, but their names are not easy to find.

• Limberg Aguilero Zarco, a 20-year-old man, was killed at the Trus Joist MacMillan plant in Colbert, Georgia. Zarco's chest had been crushed, likely as a result of operating heavy equipment at the plant.

• Dwayne Fernandez, 33, of Hampton Bays, was killed in a fall from an 80 foot cell phone tower. He had been working with his brother.

• Mustafa Boyraz, a 34-year-old Annandale, VA man, was crushed to death January 27 when a granite slab fell on him at a company in the Merrifield area of Fairfax County, police said. A 21-year-old Woodbridge man also was hurt, but his injuries were not life-threatening.

• A mechanic was killed January 22, in Charlotte, NC when a dump truck he was working on fell on him. Authorities say the victim, whose name was not released pending notification of his family, was fixing a tire on a rental truck at Hertz Equipment Rental about 12:30 p.m.

• Two teenage Mexican brothers, of Rigouerto Xaca Sandoval, 15, and Moses Xaca Sandoval, 16 were killed Tuesday at the Blythewood High when an 8-foot deep trench they were working in collapsed.

• William Gray 51, was killed Thursday in the explosion of the West Pharmaceutical Services Inc. plant in Kinston, NC.

• Fay Wilkins, 50, was killed Thursday in the explosion of the West Pharmaceutical Services Inc. plant in Kinston, NC.

• James Byrd, 60, was killed Thursday in the explosion of the West Pharmaceutical Services Inc. plant in Kinston, NC.

• Kevin Cruiess, 22 was killed Thursday in the explosion of the West Pharmaceutical Services Inc. plant in Kinston, NC.

• Chief Warrant Officer Mark S. O'Steen, 43, of Alabama; was killed in a helicopter crash at Bagram Air Force Base in Aghanistan.
• Chief Warrant Officer Thomas J. Gibbons, 31, of Tennessee; was killed in a helicopter crash at Bagram Air Force Base in Aghanistan.
• Sgt. Gregory M. Frampton, 37, of California; was killed in a helicopter crash at Bagram Air Force Base in Aghanistan.
• Staff Sgt. Daniel L. Kisling Jr., 31, of Missouri was killed in a helicopter crash at Bagram Air Force Base in Aghanistan.

Rick Husband, killed in the crash of the space shuttle Columbia.
William McCool, killed in the crash of the space shuttle Columbia
Michael Anderson, killed in the crash of the space shuttle Columbia
Kalpana Chawla killed in the crash of the space shuttle Columbia
David Brown, killed in the crash of the space shuttle Columbia
Laurel Blair Salton Clark killed in the crash of the space shuttle Columbia
Ilan Ramon killed in the crash of the space shuttle Columbia

• George Wyrembelski, A 49-year-old Brownstown (MI)Township man was killed Wednesday at a steel plant in Ecorse after chunks of ice crashed through a roof and struck him.

• John Black Sr., of Wapanucka, a Johnston County, OK, road worker, was killed in an accident while co-workers were trying to pull his road grader out of a ditch. Road foreman Danny Lowe says Black was spreading gravel when his grader became stuck. Lowe says the co-workers were stretching a heavy-duty tow rope, a shank snapped and crashed into the cab of the grader, hitting Black in the head.

• Clyde Harmon 23, of Cleveland, was killed yesterday morning when he stepped into the propeller of a small plane idling at Burke Lakefront Airport.

• Stanley A. Wiley, 38, a supervisor at an Amarillo prison shoe factory died Wednesday about four hours after he was attacked by an inmate who slashed his throat, apparently with a knife.