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‘Fatal Inequality’ Seen on Jobsites

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

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Construction is dangerous for all workers, but Latinos and immigrants are more likely to be killed on the job and less likely to speak up about its hazards, a new report warns

In six of 10 fatal construction falls in New York State between 2003 and 2011, the victim was Latino and/or an immigrant, although those groups made up only 34 percent of all workers, according to Fatal Inequality, a new study from the nonprofit Center for Popular Democracy, based in Brooklyn, NY.

In New York City during the same period, 74 percent of the victims of fatal falls were Latino and/or immigrant.

Latino construction workers
NIH

In six of 10 fatal falls in New York State between 2003 and 2011, the victim was Latino and/or an immigrant, the new study says.

Most of those deaths occurred at smaller construction and renovation projects and primarily in demolition work, said the report, which argues for continuation of New York State's Scaffold Law (Labor Law §240).

That law, now under fire from employers and insurers, holds owners and contractors fully liable if their failure to follow the law causes the death of a worker.

9 Years of Data

The center's report data are drawn from Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigations of fatal falls from an elevation between 2003 and 2011, among other sources. The report also cites focus groups of Latino construction workers conducted in 2011.

The report says "workers of color face a heightened chance of injury or death on the construction site because they work construction in disproportionate numbers and those numbers are concentrated among smaller, non-union contractors."

"This risk translates into a fatal inequality as workers of color die in disproportionate numbers on construction sites," the authors say.

Scaffolding accident
OSHA

The study urges continuation of New York State's Scaffold Law, which holds owners fully liable if their failure to follow the law causes a worker to be killed. This scaffold was erected without base plates and punched a hole in a downtown sidewalk.

The authors also cite a 2010 study of the medical records of 7,000 construction workers. That analysis found that Latino construction workers were nearly 30 percent more likely than whites to have work-related injuries, even when controlling for sex, age, education and specific construction occupation.

Taking OSHA to Task

The authors blame insufficient OSHA enforcement for the toll, calling the agency understaffed, ineffective and soft on employers.

"[W]hen OSHA does inspect a construction site, the monetary penalties imposed for violations are so small that employers can see them as just an incidental cost of doing business," the report says.

The average penalty assessed for a "serious" OSHA violation in 2012 in New York City was $2,164; the average penalty per death was $12,767, the study said. The median penalty for fatal incidents was $3,000 in 2012.

The report also notes this 2009 conclusion from the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health: "OSHA’s penalty structure is insufficient to serve as a deterrent. Fines are reduced, and unsafe workplaces remain.”

OSHA poster
OSHA

OSHA's Stop Falls Campaign includes materials in Spanish, but the Center for Popular Democracy says the agency is not doing enough to protect Spanish-speaking workers.

The Center for Popular Democracy also said OSHA "almost never pursues criminal penalties, even for egregious and willful violations that are directly linked to a worker's death."

Scaffold Law Support

New York's current Scaffold Law helps level the playing field by holding employers responsible for workers who cannot protect themselves, the report says. The law also fills gaps in worker compensation laws.

Shifting that responsbility to workers, as is now being proposed, "will have a disparate impact on construction workers for color, which makes the preservation of the current Scaffold Law a civil rights issue," the center said.

Proponents say the change, known as "comparative liability," would apportion responsibility between workers and owners or contractors.

The center calls such a model unjust, however, saying that "construction workers often find themselves ordered to work in unsafe conditions, without safety equipment or with defective or improperly installed or secured equipment."

The Underground Economy

Latino and/or immigrant workers "may lack knowledge of their legal rights, face language barriers in some cases, and fear retribution for speaking out," the report adds.

Scaffolding
OSHA

The Center for Popular Democracy calls preservation of the current Scaffold Law "a civil rights issue" that saves lives.

That is especially true for the many workers who are part of construction's underground economy, the report says.

It cites a 2003 report by the New York City Construction Industry Partnership, which documented that employers in the underground economy "invest virtually nothing in the safety training or their project management and/or trade labor force."

The 2003 report found that those employers jeopardize the safety of the public and their workers, the center said.

Declining Unions

The new report also notes that fewer workers are getting protection from unions. It notes that the number of union construction workers in New York City declined to 45 percent in 2004-06, from 63 percent in the early 1990s.

The industry also relies heavily on day laborers—more than 10,000 a day in New York City—who are "routinely abused," according to a 2003 study by the Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy at New School University.

   

Tagged categories: Fall protection; Fatalities; Health and safety; OSHA; Worker training; Workers

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