Austin Worker’s Death Emblematic of Dangerous Construction Industry in Texas

SOUTH AUSTIN, TX — The death of a construction worker in South Austin this week tragically the danger of the profession in a state leading the nation in work-related deaths.

“Too many men and women are taken from their families due to the deadly working conditions of the Texas construction industry,” said Jose P. Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project. “Our hearts are heavy to know that one more loved one won’t be going home today. His family is in our prayers.”

The construction worker, a man in his 30s, was crushed to death Wednesday morning at a work site for an apartments complex construction project at Wickersham Lane and Cromwell Circle in South Austin. Despite efforts to extricate the worker from under a concrete slab — monoliths often weighing between 30,000 to 40,000 pounds — the man succumbed to his injuries, and died at the scene.

The Workers Defense Project has long called for workplace safety at construction sites — often populated primarily by a Hispanic workforce — long before this week’s death. The nonprofit has a Better Builders Program promoting worker protection, continually reaching out to developers to sign on to its outlined agreements related to construction site safeguards.

To earn the Better Builders Program imprimatur, developers must adhere to a variety of safeguards: Providing workers compensation to their labor forces; providing laborers with a living wage; provision of OSHA-10 training for employees; follow all applicable local, state and federal laws; agree to independent, on-site monitoring at work sites; and other safety-promoting measures.

In January, WDP outlined a list of accomplishments reached the prior year — several of which included goals related to worker safety:

More than 14,300 men and women have been construction workers on Better Builder sites since 2012, including 4,619 men and women in construction during 2016 alone.Among the projects for which WDP advocated were at the Apple campus, Green Water Treatment Plant, Homestead Oaks and others.Forty-five percent (45%) of men and women interviewed report receiving OSHA-10 safety training for the first time. The acronym OSHA stands for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a unit of the U.S. Department of Labor, with a stated mission to “…assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.”More than 46 percent of construction workers reported receiving workers’ compensation insurance for the first time, thanks to the WDP’s efforts.

Despite such gains, workers regionally continue to die at construction sites — with Texas earning the dubious distinction of leading the nation in such deaths. According to a recent study done in collaboration with the University of Illinois, a construction worker dies every nine hours in the South due to unsafe working conditions. In addition, OSHA documented in 2015 that a construction worker dies in Texas once every three days.

Often, tragedies at work sites are exacerbated by a brisk pace of development in thriving cities like Austin where the skyline is continually re-shaped amid a strong economy. Yet it’s difficult to gauge the level of worker accidents in Austin; the WDP’s own study focused on working conditions of 1,435 six southern cities, including Dallas and Houston.

Still, examples invariably — and tragically — emerge:

In San Antonio, a construction worker fell to his death after the bucket attached to a forklift tipped over, sending him hurtling some 75 feet to the ground. Another worker with him sustained critical injuries at the downtown work site. The incident occurred in December 2016.Three months before that in nearby Lockhart, Texas, a construction worker died and another hospitalized after both were tapped following the collapse of an excavation project. The man killed was buried under rubble when a wastewater line collapsed, taking rescue workers 4 1/2 hours to extricate his body from the detritus. In July 2016, a construction worker died while replacing a roof at West Cypress Elementary School, a Lake Travis ISD campus, when he lost his footing. The 39-year-old fell 30 feet to his death. In January of this year, a construction worker in Williamson County was killed after being run over by his own backhoe. Sheriff Robert Chody said at the time that the machine the man was on at the time hit a bump, ejecting him forward before being run over.Also in January, a 19-year-old female construction worker was killed at a San Antonio construction site after a foreman crushed her with a backhoe while both worked on the city’s West Side.

Those are just a few examples. According to OSHA, more than 70 workers died in Texas in the first four months of this year alone. Nationally, some 4,500 construction workers die on the job every year, according to the agency. Regulators do what they can to provide deterrents for such safety lapses, as they did in September of last year when they cited two companies overseeing construction work in Austin.

Investigators at the time proposed more than $121,000 in fines against Austin Constructors LLC and Muniz Concrete and Contracting Inc. centered on its Colorado Street work site. OSHA investigators found the companies exposed workers to trench cave-in hazards at the Austin project. Willful safety violations were found, the most serious among them failure to support and cover utility lines in the trench, not protecting employees from loose rock or soil and for not providing guardrails on walkways over the trench.

“There are roughly 54 fatalities associated with excavations each year, such as the one that happened in Lockhart this past week, because employers failed to take the necessary measures to keep them safe,” Casey R. Perkins, OSHA’s area director in Austin, said at the time. “These employers knew better, and they are fortunate we inspected them before any of their employees were seriously injured or killed.”

Despite financial deterrents, violations at work sites are continually discovered and not just related to construction projects:

In December 2016, OSHA assessed more than $91,000 in fines against the Thomas Moore Feed company in Navasota, Texas. Investigators found the company failed repeatedly to guard machinery and protect employees against fall and grain dust hazards. The agency’s Houston North Area office cited the employer for eight serious violations and to repeat ones after having cited the animal feed manufacturer or similar violations in February 2015. That same month, Subfloor Systems of Hurst, Texas, faced fines of more than $87,000 from OSHA after investigators observed a foreman and other workers without fall protection at the construction site of a commercial building. After its September 19, 2016 investigation, the agency cited the company with one willful violation for exposing workers to potential falls. In January that same year, OSHA cited the company with a willful violation after its investigation of an employee’s serious injury after falling from 22 feet. JFM International Inc. in Willis, Texas, faced $107,000 in fines after OSHA found workers exposed to amputation and chemical hazards. Investigators found machines with exposed rotating parts lacking safeguards to protect against serious injury. Workers also were overexposed to noise potentially leading to hearing loss. All told, OSHA cited the company for three serious health violations, including not protecting workers from electrical and flammable chemical hazards and failing to record a workplace injury. In October of last year, OSHA investigators proposed more than $102,000 in penalties against CACO Manufacturing Corp. in Houston following an investigation heavy machinery crushed and killed a worker. OSHA investigators found the commercial furniture manufacturer failed to securely anchor or guard machines, did not property identify lock out/tag out devices used to prevent sudden start-up or movement of machine parts, lacked energy control procedures and failed to train employees on hazardous chemicals present in the workplace.A finger amputation at a Dallas-area Tyson Foods Inc. plant led to the discovery of numerous safety violations in August 2016, leading to fines of more than $263,000. Following up on the amputation report, investigators found two repeat and 15 serious violations at the Center, Texas, chicken processing plant. Generally, federal workplace safety inspectors determined the nation’s largest meat and poultry processor endangered workers by exposing them to amputation hazards along with high levels of carbon dioxide and peracetic acid without providing personal protective equipment.

It’s a long list of punitive actions. To see a full accounting by OSHA, click here.

>>> Image via Shutterstock

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