Examining the Price of Inaction on Workers’ Memorial Day

By Emily Gardner, Public Citizen

Each year on April 28, our nation pauses to commemorate Workers’ Memorial Day.  We take time to remember the workers who lost their lives, as well as those who suffer from a debilitating workplace injury or illness. An estimated 12 people in the U.S. die from a work-related injury every day. In 2014 alone, approximately 4,800 workers died on the job.

While there is much construction workers more work to be done to prevent these tragedies, we must also take time to celebrate the hard-fought victories for workplace safety and health.  For example, on Thursday, March 24, OSHA published its long-awaited silica rule updating the standard that protects workers from exposure to crystalline silica dust. The new standard could save up to 600 lives and prevent 900 new cases of silicosis a year, according to OSHA.

Looking ahead, safety and health advocates should continue to fight for reforms that will ensure that workers – especially those in dangerous industries like construction – don’t have to risk their lives for a paycheck.

It’s no secret that construction workers are at high risk of serious injuries and even death when they show up to work. Whether they work in Maryland, Washington, California, or New York, (some of the places Public Citizen has examined before), construction workers face speeding traffic, toxic chemicals, and trench collapses, among many other hazards. In Texas, the situation is no different. With a booming construction industry and a large construction workforce, Texas is one of the most dangerous states in the nation for construction workers, many of whom are immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

A report issued today by the Workers Defense Project and Public Citizen highlights the devastating toll worksite fatalities and injuries take on Texas construction workers, their families, and communities. This report is a part of a series of city and state reports estimating the costs of deaths and injuries in the construction industry. According to the report:

  • In 2013, 116 Texas construction workers lost their lives on the job, and 5,600 workers experienced a work-related injury or illness requiring them to take time off of work to recover.
  • People of color and immigrants experience disproportionate rates of work-related fatalities and injuries in Texas’ construction industry. Specifically:
    • Nearly two out of every three construction workers killed in Texas are Latino.
    • In addition, from 2012 to 2013, while the total number of construction worker fatalities in Texas increased by about 11%, fatalities among foreign-born Latino construction workers in the state increased by an astounding 47% during this time period.
  • These dangerous worksites in Texas also pose a significant economic burden. The report estimates:
    • Workplace fatalities and injuries in the Texas construction industry cost an estimated $895.9 million annually; and
    • Workers and their families, rather than employers, foot a large chunk of this bill – an estimated $447.9 million every year.

Why are working families, rather than employers, shouldering the economic burden of unsafe workplaces? One reason is Texas’ workers’ compensation “opt out” law.

In Texas, employers may opt out of the state workers’ compensation system.  When employers opt out, they can choose to provide an alternative workers’ compensation plan or no plan at all. Recent news stories have documented how these alternative workers’ compensation plans are nothing more than a rigged system designed to prevent workers from qualifying for benefits.  Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez recently called these plans a “pathway to poverty.” Without access to workers’ compensation, many vulnerable workers are forced to rely on their own savings, Medicaid, and county indigent programs to make ends meet.

In order to protect workers from preventable and often fatal injuries, Texas lawmakers should pass laws to mitigate dangerous workplaces in the construction industry.  In addition to mandating workers’ compensation coverage, Texas should seek innovative strategies to safeguard workers from hazards on the job.  One solution proposed in the report is to enact a law that would allow Texas to screen construction companies for their health and safety record before awarding them public works contracts.  This approach is similar to Maryland House Bill 977 – a bill originally influenced by a Public Citizen report and model bill – as well as other “responsible contractor” initiatives recently introduced in legislatures throughout the country.

The price of inaction in Texas and around the country is simply too high. This April 28 and beyond, we must continue to fight for reform until all workers, regardless of industry, immigration status, or ethnicity, have safe jobs.

Keep up with Public Citizen’s work on these issues by following @SafeWorkers on Twitter.

Originally posted here.