The December issue of the Socialist Standard carried an articleentitled “Worked to Death” that highlighted the lack of health and safety and risky working conditions of many workers around the world. An article on theTruth Out website covers some of the same ground.
For 7.45 million construction workers in America - 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. 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."
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.
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."
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.
Allen also 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."
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.
Texas leads the United States in on-site construction deaths; New York, however, follows close behind. One of every 13 people employed in Texas works in construction. A 2013 report compiled by the Workers Defense Project revealed 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.
Construction accounts for 4 percent of jobs in New York State, it accounts for 20 percent of workplace fatalities. Charlene Obernauer explained "There is a huge correlation between non-union jobs and fatalities. 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.