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

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Two minutes into the conversation and Denis Holmes’ voice cracked on the edge of tears, remembering how his youngest son, Matthew, still his baby at age 22, died on the job on Aug. 7, 2008, killed when a steel beam fell on him. 

Matthew “Matty” Holmes “hadn’t even gotten his first pay check,” Holmes said. 

On Friday morning, to honor his son, Holmes will attend the annual Workers’ Memorial Day ceremony in Philadelphia. 

The 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 somber funeral ceremony at Penn’s Landing at the Delaware River. There are always tears, and anger is no stranger over coffee and eggs.

For Holmes, the event will have a special and cruel irony. He expects to meet the family of Rodger Cieri, 57, of Fairless Hills. Maybe the two families will stand together at the river’s edge as flowers are tossed into the Delaware, one for each person who went to work and never came home.

Like Matthew Holmes, who died at Samuel Grossi and Sons, a steel fabrication company in Bensalem, Cieri lost his life on Jan. 16 at the same plant when a steel beam fell on him. Cieri was married, had five children and eight grandchildren.

“Another person killed there,” Holmes said. “It just hit me so hard.”

Gov. Wolf is expected to speak at Friday’s ceremony, which is organized by PhilaPOSH, the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Health and Safety, a labor-backed advocacy organization. On Wednesday, a bill extending worker health and safety projections to Pennsylvania’s public sector workers was introduced in Harrisburg by Rep. Pat Harkins, (D-Erie). 

Bills to extend these protections have been introduced in the past, but have usually died in committee, said Barbara Rahke, executive director of PhilaPOSH. She said families of two public sector workers who died at work are expected to attend the breakfast.

Other speakers include Rick Engler, a member of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board appointed by President Obama; Nancy Winkler, whose daughter, Ann Bryan, was killed in 2013 when a building collapsed on the Salvation Army Thrift store; Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO; Jennifer Lee, a Temple law professor, who will talk about unsafe conditions for temporary workers; and attorney Sam Pond, who will speak about proposed changes in workers’ compensation laws.

This year’s ceremony, to be held at the sheet metal workers’ union hall in South Philadelphia, will particularly note the deaths of 134 people in the tristate area over the past year. They range 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.

Holmes said that Grossi paid for his son’s funeral and a headstone at the graveyard, but those gestures and fines levied by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration didn’t begin to compensate for his son’s death.

Holmes said his son had been excited about his new job at Grossi’s, feeling that he was on the path to a steady future. 

Since his son died, there has been a wedding and grandchildren, but a shadow falls on every event, no matter how joyous.

“It’s an emptiness that stays with you,” Holmes said. “It’s a life sentence.”

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1 Philadelphia

Philadelphia News & Search

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