By Barb Arland-Fye
My grandfather, Raymond J. Arland, worked for the last time on Oct. 4, 1937, because of an industrial accident that led to his death at age 39. He left behind a wife, Irene, and nine children. A 10th child died shortly after birth that same year. As the daughter of Ray and Irene’s eighth child, also named Raymond J. Arland, I have searched on and off for years for answers to the circumstances surrounding grandpa’s death.
On this Labor Day weekend I’ll think about him, remembering his image from a portrait that was displayed in a large oval frame in my grandma’s living room. I’ll think about him and the nameless men and women who also died as a result of industrial accidents long before the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) took effect in 1971. I’ll say a prayer for the souls of all of them.
I must have been 6 or 7 when I asked Grandma Arland what happened to my grandpa. She told me he had been taken up too quickly in an elevator shaft and died of the bends. When I shared that information at my Catholic grade school, I was told that the bends (Decompression Illness) are the result of ascending too quickly from deep under water. But the rapid ascent my grandfather made when he worked as an inspector for the State Industrial Company in St. Paul, Minnesota, could also have caused the bends. My dad, just 4 years old at the time of the accident, learned later that his father was working on a tunnel being built from the State Capitol to its various office buildings. Grandpa was an accountant for the State of Minnesota, but was trying to earn extra money during the Depression.
Rosemary, the oldest of my dad’s siblings, recalls her dad being brought home from work and writhing in pain. He didn’t want anyone to touch him. He was taken to the hospital and underwent surgery Oct. 23. The dates of his surgery and the last time he worked appear on his death certificate, dated Dec. 19, 1937. An autopsy was performed and cause of death is listed. But the death certificate leaves blank the location where the injury occurred (at work) and the manner and nature of injury. I wondered why.
Grandma received some insurance money, but it wasn’t nearly enough on which to raise nine children. One of grandma’s sisters offered to take in a couple of the kids. “My mom didn’t want to break up the family,” my dad says. So she went to work full-time as a stenographer after the youngest child started school. Two older children later dropped out of school to help with expenses.
Over the years I’ve pestered my dad for more information. It happened so long ago, he says. What’s the use of thinking about it today? But Dad indulged my curiosity by giving written permission for me to obtain his father’s death certificate. That document left me with more questions than answers.
My quest for closure compels me onward. One of the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching is dignity of workers and their right to meaningful employment that sustains them and their families. OSHA’s task is to ensure that workers are safe in jobs that provide for their families’ livelihoods.
For my grandfather and other workers like him, OSHA came a generation too late. But their deaths may have provided the impetus for the law that exists today. I’ll reflect on that in prayer this Labor Day.
(Barb Arland-Fye, Editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)