In Philly: A day to weep for those who died at work

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Thomas Ciera, left, holds a photograph of his brother Rodger Ciera, who died on the job Jan. 16 at age 57. Rodger Ciera, who had a wife, five children and eight grandchildren, was killed when a steel beam fell on him at Samuel Grossi and Sons, a steel fabrication company in Bensalem. Brianna Ciera, right, Rodger Ciera’s daughter, tossed a rose into the Delaware River in honor of her father at the annual Worker’s Memorial Day ceremony at Penn’s Landing. This year’s ceremony especially honored 134 people from the tri-state area who were killed at work.

Rodger Ciera was working at Samuel Grossi & Sons, a steel fabrication company in Bensalem, on Aug. 7, 2008, the day Matthew Holmes, 22, was killed when a steel beam fell on him. Newly hired, Holmes hadn’t even been working long enough to receive his first paycheck.

“My brother was horrified by it,” Ciera’s brother, Thomas, recalled Friday. “He was furious. He really took it hard.”

On Jan. 16, Rodger Ciera, 57, was killed in the same plant in the same way – a steel beam fell on him.

"Another person killed there," Holmes’ father, Denis, said. "It just hit me so hard."

On Friday, for the first time, Ciera’s family met Holmes’ at the annual Workers Memorial Day breakfast. For Holmes’ father, brother, and sister, it was gratifying, in a sad way, to realize that Rodger Ciera had known "Matty" Holmes, had known how he died, and had felt it deeply.

“The most important thing we learned is that we’re not alone,” Thomas Ciera said. “So many people have died on the job.”

The annual event, intended to draw attention to unsafe conditions at workplaces that lead to death and injury, includes a breakfast, speakers, a solemn march with a casket on Columbus Boulevard, and a funeral ceremony at Penn's Landing. There are always tears, and anger is no stranger over coffee and eggs.

Many years, rain falls during the springtime event, as families one by one drop roses into the Delaware River in honor of a worker who lost his life on the job. But that was not the case Friday, as union members, officials from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, family members, and advocates lined up at the river’s edge, each holding a sign commemorating someone who died at work.

"It was therapeutic," said Brianna Ciera, who dropped a rose into the river. "My father would have been proud of us for being here."  

The dead included, for example, ironworker Walter F. Lenkowski III, 25, who died June 5, 2016, when he fell off the Delair Bridge; Trooper Sean Cullen, 31, who died March 7, 2016, when he was struck by a car while responding to a car fire in West Deptford; car washer Leonard Mendeloski, 22, who died June 27, 2016, when he was hit by two cars while cleaning another car’s rear windows; and shopkeeper Marie Buck, 81, who died on Christmas Eve when she was shot inside her store.  

This year, the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Health and Safety (PhilaPOSH), the group that organizes the event, tallied 134 dead in the tristate area in the last year, ranging in age from 21 to 80. Nationally, 4,836 people died on the job in 2015, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Labor Department.

“It’s a primary civil right to work in a safe environment,” Gov. Wolf told the group of more than 300 gathered Friday morning at the Sheet Metal Workers union hall on Columbus Boulevard.

Wolf said protecting workers’ rights to organize was one of the best ways to ensure safety, because a union can negotiate safer worker conditions.

He said he planned to sign a bill extending health and safety projections to Pennsylvania's public-sector workers, introduced by Rep. Pat Harkins (D., Erie). 

Other speakers included Rick Engler, a member of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board appointed by President Barack Obama; Nancy Winkler, whose daughter, Ann Bryan, was killed in 2013 when a building collapsed on the Salvation Army thrift store on Market Street; Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO; Jennifer Lee, a Temple University law professor; and lawyer Sam Pond.

The details of each speech were different, but the underlying message was the same: As worker safety regulations are scaled back, as budgets of regulatory agencies are trimmed, advocates for worker safety have to push harder than ever.

“We have to understand this attack is real,” Pond said. Changes proposed in a Pennsylvania House bill dealing with workers’ compensation are “going to take away your right to see a doctor,” he said. “This bill has to be defeated. It will ruin lives.”

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