In the early morning hours of Jan. 11, 2020, Wayne Casson of Treynor was a passenger in a semi-truck on an icy section of westbound Interstate 80 outside West Branch when the driver lost control. Casson died after the 2020 Freightliner crashed into the north ditch.
Casson, a longtime trucker and farmer, and the driver were on their way back from the Davenport area.
The husband, father and grandfather — and 50 other Iowans who died in workplace incidents in 2020 — was honored during a Workers Memorial Day event held by the Western Iowa Labor Federation on Thursday night at Bayliss Park.
“It’s very special for him to be recognized,” Casson’s daughter Traci Black said after the event. Black attended with her mother and children. “It’s just a special honor for everybody to be honored for the service they were doing at their job.”
Locally, others that died include Carrillo Homero-Trijuillo, 51, of Harrison County, who was killed by a tire that flew off a vehicle; Patrick Gallagher, 64, of Shelby County, who died after contracting COVID-19 on the job; Donald McAllister, 68, of Page County, who died in motor vehicle accident; and Michael Teachout, 63, of Page County, who died after contracting COVID-19 on the job.
Western Iowa Labor Federation President Jeff Shudak told the crowd of about 30 people at Bayliss, “we celebrate the workers that made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Shudak noted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was started 50 years ago, signed into law by President Richard Nixon.
Of those 51 deaths, at least 10 were COVID-19 related. With more than 4,600 deaths tied to the disease in 2020 and countless outbreaks at businesses, both Shudak and Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, said it’s possible that number is truly higher.
“I don’t think we’ll ever grasp what happened to workers in the past year,” Wishman said. “We’ll never know the true impact, unless you’re somebody who lost someone.”
The 51 Iowans that died in workplace incidents in 2020 ranged in age from 19 to 79 and made their living in a variety of sectors. Peggy Peterson, bureau chief for Iowa OSHA consultation with the Iowa Division of Labor, told the story of her father, who died of a heart attack while working for a business that built farm machinery.
“As I began a career working with OSHA enforcement in the 90s, I had the heartbreaking job of investigating workplace fatalities and contacting the family — (and) providing tough answers,” she said. “I vowed to take the knowledge I learned from each of those fatalities to help prevent others from living that nightmare.”
She asked the crowd to “take a vow with me that when you see an unsafe act you say something, take a moment to ask questions, to educate the worker. I would like each of the employers to stop unsafe acts, speak up when they feel the task is unsafe, to take corrective actions — because their lives mean more to us than getting the job done.”
Wishman said memorials like this one, of which he’s attended for 10 years in his work with the labor union, were always difficult.
“Every community has its own way to mourn its losses. We are mourning as an entire state, country and world,” he said, before paraphrasing workers icon Mother Jones: “We mourn for the dead, we fight like hell for the living.”
To conclude the ceremony, the Rev. John Holben read the names of the dead while Council Bluffs Community Schools board member Jill Shudak turned out the light of electric votive candles.
Afterward, Jeff Shudak said having the Casson family attend made the event “that much more moving and special.” All of the speakers thanked the family for attending.
Black said they were happy to attend. The event brought back memories, some of them joyful, others painful.
“We got the call from the (Iowa) State Patrol,” she said, trailing off a moment. “It hit really hard to say good-bye. He never came home.”
“This was a really nice event,” she said.
Shudak said he hoped the takeaway from Thursday’s ceremony was, “these 51 people kissed their loved ones good-bye, took their lunch pail and walked out the door and they never came back.”