Vanessa Downing was killed June 24, 2010, at age 26, in a work accident on the Seattle waterfront. A proud member of Operating Engineers Union-Mechanics, she was close to completion of her apprenticeship. Her mother, Erin Mangan-Downing, donated Vanessa’s welding suit, that she’d modified herself with kneepads, to the touring On Equal Terms installation. Since there was no place where it quite fit, I created a new element, We Remember, focused on work-related deaths, that was added for the 2012 exhibition at the Smithsonian-affiliated MSU Museum in East Lansing, MI. Placed in a quiet area of the installation, an arrangement of tiles with each woman’s name and year-of-birth/year-of-death, along with explanatory text about each, and related artifacts, became a gathering place for reflection and conversation. For the online version, I am glad to be able to add a photograph for some of the women, and to include We Remember All Our Sisters—honoring tradeswomen whose deaths were not work-related, but whose loss was deeply felt—added, at the suggestion of NYC tradeswomen, for the 2013 Clemente Soto Velez Center exhibition on the Lower East Side.
To research We Remember I backtracked first to stories I knew personally, or that were mentioned to me over the years, in conversations or interviews, about deaths that tradeswomen identified as work-related. I asked for more detail, checking news or government accounts, following a range of other leads, and consulting with veteran tradeswomen to evaluate what seemed plausible. This is a poet’s account, not a legal one, of Work-Related Deaths of women working in construction and related occupations that took place across roughly four decades. It’s not meant as an exhaustive record, but rather follows a poet’s curiosity—with leads, advice and generous assistance from the tradeswomen community—to present the range of situations that became fatal. In a dangerous industry, storytelling about serious or fatal accidents is part of the culture, serving both as remembrance/honoring, and as cautionary tales. For women who work in historically-male industries, circumstances of work-related deaths include—but also go beyond—those normally associated with the occupation. Word of them travels, and can have deep personal impact for women who never knew the victim. I included representative fatalities from similar occupations that had resonance for tradeswomen. Though the intention had been to limit those to one each, exceptions were made for the 1989 Montreal Massacre and 9/11 deaths. Before I began, I imagined separate lists for accidents, murders, and suicides, and thought those categories would be easy to distinguish, and that whether a death was work-related or not would be obvious. I found otherwise, and for the latter, followed tradeswomen’s perceptions and the notion—as in work-related accidents or health conditions—that its role was significant.
When I’m told about a serious work-related injury or death of a woman, or any worker who might be unwelcome, I’ve learned to ask, Do you think it was an accident? I’ve found that this generates a deeper and more nuanced conversation, raising questions about norms that were not followed, added pressures to prove oneself, prior situations that shaped the current one, or how the danger could have been anticipated and prevented.