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US Building Boom Fuels Spike in Construction Worker Injury and Death

A lack of training, coupled with the willful neglect of safety measures, led to nearly 900 construction fatalities in 2014.

Nationwide, fewer than 3,000 inspectors - an average of 60 per state - are charged with monitoring 8 million work sites. Safety violations often fall through the cracks. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

They fall from ladders, roofs and scaffolding, get electrocuted, and breathe in toxic chemicals and dust. They get hit by falling objects and find themselves on the receiving end of mechanical failures and equipment malfunctions. For 7.45 million construction workers – one-fourth of them foreign born – going to work as a bricklayer, carpenter, electrician, framer, mason, painter, plumber, or drywall or tile installer means facing acute dangers within their daily work.

In New York State, “It would take the 113 inspectors employed by OSHA 107 years to inspect each workplace one time.”

Indeed, despite efforts by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to oversee workplaces, train workers and ensure that adequate precautions are taken, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that fatal injuries on construction sites increased by 5 percent in 2014, to 874. In addition, hundreds of thousands of workers are injured on the job, filing an incredible 1 million workers’ compensation claims a year for both temporary conditions – such as broken bones and sprains – and permanent injuries, including paralysis and loss of limbs.

The reason, say experts, is a residential building boom in cities across the country, among them Phoenix, Arizona; San Francisco and San Jose, California; Miami, Florida; New York City; Nashville, Tennessee; and Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, Texas.

And although the law requires employers to provide safety training in workers’ native languages; equip them with safety gear, including hard hats, gloves, harnesses and nets; and maintain equipment, from handheld tools to cranes and forklifts; this does not always happen.

Attorney Robert Mongeluzzi of the Philadelphia firm of Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett and Bendesky has represented victims of construction negligence for 30 years. “The root cause of injury and death is the lack of construction oversight,” he said. “When builders incur debt, the faster they do the construction, the more profit they make. Given the profit motive, shortcuts are sometimes taken.”

Charlene Obernauer, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), agrees. “Real estate is the domestic product in New York City,” she said. “In other places, they have corn or coal, but in New York City it’s about the race to build the biggest, most profitable buildings.” That said, Obernauer points out that construction workers and their advocates face additional obstacles. OSHA – the federal agency responsible for protecting worker health and safety – is severely understaffed, she told Truthout. In the Empire State alone, she said, “It would take the 113 inspectors employed by the agency 107 years to inspect each workplace one time.”

Nationwide, fewer than 3,000 inspectors – an average of 60 per state – are charged with monitoring 8 million work sites. It’s a small wonder that safety violations often fall through the cracks.

Sixty percent of Texas’ largely Latino construction workforce has never received health and safety training.

Scott Allen, director for public affairs at the US Department of Labor’s Midwest office, concedes that budget shortfalls have kept OSHA from being as vigilant as it would like to be. Still, he says, it’s not for lack of commitment. “We know what we’re dealing with and don’t even use the word ‘accidents’ for death and injury on construction sites,” he said. “We call them incidents because almost every one of them could have been prevented if the employer had done the right thing for his or her workers.”

At the same time, Allen acknowledges that OSHA does not have enough staff to ensure that every construction site is in compliance with prevailing health and safety codes. “OSHA looks at the stats for the industry overall,” he said, “and if we see a spike, say, in falls or electrocutions on a national or local level, we’ll put an emphasis on that industry or place. We also go out to inspect if we get complaints about problems at a particular site and will issue a citation if violations are found.”

Although it sounds straightforward, Allen says that the employer then has two options: fix the breach and pay the penalty or ask for a hearing. “OSHA wants to abate the issue as quickly as it can so if the amount of the penalty is an issue, we’ll reduce the fine so that the abatement gets done faster,” Allen told Truthout. “On the other hand, if the employer shows a direct disregard for OSHA standards, or is a repeat offender, the fine amount can be increased to $70,000 for each violation and the business can be placed in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP). Once they’re put in SVEP, their workplaces will be inspected more regularly, and with more vigilance, since they have a track record of not protecting their workers.”

As of July 2014, 257 construction firms were on OSHA’s SVEP watch list, a 23 percent increase over 2013. Nonetheless, the total is a drop in the proverbial bucket and has done little to mitigate the risks facing all too many construction workers.

Take Texas. National Public Radio estimates that one of every 13 people employed in the state works in construction. What’s more, a 2013 report compiled by the Workers Defense Project, “Build a Better Texas: Construction Working Conditions in the Lone Star State,” reveals that 60 percent of the state’s largely Latino construction workforce has never received health and safety training; 78 percent have no health insurance; 71 percent receive no benefits from their employer; and 20 percent have had to seek medical attention at least once for a serious workplace injury. Almost half, 41 percent, had experienced payroll fraud, from outright wage theft to lack of overtime pay. Their average earnings came to a paltry $12.24 per hour. And the situation has not improved in the three years since the report was released.

In fact, perhaps predictably, Texas leads the United States in on-site construction deaths; New York, however, follows close behind.

“There is a huge correlation between non-union jobs and fatalities.”

NYCOSH’s Obernauer reports that while construction accounts for 4 percent of jobs in New York State, it accounts for 20 percent of workplace fatalities. “In 2015, we saw a drastic increase in construction-site deaths,” she said. “There’s a myth that this is because of the number of high-rises – the 30-, 40- and 50-plus-story buildings that are going up everywhere. Our investigation showed that 67 percent of the fatalities resulted from falls that happened on smaller projects and among workers employed by small firms.”

Size, she continues, turns out to be far less important than whether the site is unionized. “There is a huge correlation between non-union jobs and fatalities,” she said. “Eighty percent of the deaths occurred on non-union sites, among workers employed by small non-union companies with only a few employees. On union sites, there is rigorous training. Just to get into the union a worker needs to complete a nine-month apprenticeship program. When you compare union to non-union workplaces, you see that workers on small sites typically lack an OSHA 10 card, a document that is needed to work on a building with 10 or more stories.”

Smaller firms are also more likely to rely on day laborers. Gonzalo Mercado, executive director of the Staten Island Community Job Center, estimates that several thousand people – most of them young men from Ecuador and Mexico – go to one of the 35 city street corners known to be day laborer pickup sites in hopes of finding employment. Pay, he says, averages $120 a day but training is rare and safety precautions are virtually unheard of. Injuries, he says, are common.

“There was recently a fatality on Staten Island,” Mercado said. “A worker was in a trench in a strip mall when a wall collapsed on him. It turned out that the owner did not have a permit to do the work; of course, the workers he hired did not know this. The man was buried when the walls came down because they had not been buttressed correctly.”

The worst part of this, he adds, is that owners have little incentive to improve safety since they are barely slapped on the wrist when things go awry. “That’s the reason falls from roofs and scaffolds are so prevalent but construction is not the only job with health and safety issues. Landscapers get sick from smelling the fumes from leaf blowers,” he said, and are rarely given the masks they need to reduce their exposure.

Community groups like the National Day Labor Organizing Network, unions and workers’ centers have sounded the alarm on flagrant OSHA violations, Mercado says. Nonetheless, he made clear that much more can be done to protect all workers from occupational hazards. His focus, however, is on immigrants, since even if they are documented, they remain vulnerable to discrimination.

Owners have little incentive to improve safety since they are barely slapped on the wrist when things go awry.

Case in point: According to Mongeluzzi, the Philadelphia attorney, the men who work as house framers in southern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, who are mostly Brazilian, are often at risk of serious injury or worse. “Most don’t speak much English and walk on beams with no harness, scaffolding or nets,” he said. “The way the job works, you first have to excavate the site. Then you pour cement and put up the frame of the building. Next, you sink wooden pieces into the foundation vertically; later, you put up horizontal beams and string joists across them. Framers are constantly in the air putting braces into the joists. There are many falls because of the lack of safety equipment. Last year alone, we handled five deaths and between 15 and 20 catastrophic accidents: Burns, brain damage, paralysis.”

Settlements, of course, can sometimes reach millions and even though Mongeluzzi won the nation’s largest-ever settlement – $101 million for the victims of the 2003 Tropicana Hotel collapse that killed four and seriously injured 36 New Jersey workers – he is not satisfied; he emphasizes that the calamity could have been prevented had there been better oversight.

“There are kids who had to grow up without a father and many others who still struggle to this day with injuries that resulted from the collapse,” he said. “In my estimation, 40 percent of construction-site deaths and catastrophic injuries could be cut if companies had to institute and maintain fall protections for workers.”

Other changes, says NYCOSH’s Obernauer, are also needed. For example, OSHA should be able to shut down a job site if it is unsafe, something it currently lacks the authority to do. Additionally, prioritizing safety by mandating training and making sure that every worker has protective outfitting, and knows how to use it, is paramount.

After all, shouldn’t workers’ lives be valued above the bottom line?

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