Those names probably mean nothing to you, and why should they? It was almost 48 years ago — April 11, 1973 — that the four employees of Westinghouse’s elevator division were putting finishing touches on an elevator shaft at the nearly-topped-out Sears Tower, using turpentine to scrub away oil the foundry put on the steel rails to keep them from rusting.
They were on a platform on the 42nd floor, in a “blind shaft” — two entrances, one 20 feet above their heads and another 100 feet below — when a spark ignited the turpentine. Other workers heard their screams and tried to break into the shaft to get to them, hammering at the concrete walls. But of course it was too late.
We seldom consider workers who lose their lives. They don’t even get the little gratuitous nod we give first responders, though it might be argued that they do one better than saving the city: They built it in the first place, and keep it running.
I thought of these four lost workers Monday morning because of an email with the enigmatic subject line: “BLS Midwest News Update: March 22-26, 2021.” You’d never open that, right? I did. The “BLS” is Bureau of Labor Statistics — part of the same federal government that took the lead in developing vaccines; I sure hope their medical judgment is better than their ability to craft catchy subject lines, or we’re all in trouble.
The email inside is clear, and the message isn’t good: 5,333 fatal work injuries in the United States in 2019, up 2% from the year before and the highest toll in a dozen years. Of those deaths, 158 were in Illinois.
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