Death on the job in Texas

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Every 2½ days a construction worker dies on the job in Texas.

On Tuesday, just days after three construction workers fell to their deaths in Austin, a group of workers gathered outside City Hall there to call for better working conditions in the industry. They brought with them 142 pairs of workers boots, symbolizing the number of workers who died in construction accidents in the state in 2007.

Despite the recession, the construction industry is booming in Texas, but human rights groups point out that the state's lax enforcement of labor and safety regulations is exacting a huge price on workers. According to a new study by the Workers Defense Project, an Austin-based labor advocacy group, Texas now holds the title as the deadliest state in the country for construction workers, with nearly twice as many deaths as any other state.

The report, 'Building Austin, Building Injustice,' examined the poor and dangerous working conditions prevalent in the construction industry in Texas. It found that Texas fails to guarantee even the most basic safety and labor protections.

For instance, the report notes that many workers are forced to endure unsafe conditions and work in temperatures up to 112 degrees F. and overtime hours without rest breaks. Nearly two-thirds of the workers surveyed said they didn't even receive basic safety training before getting on the work site.

The researchers surveyed more than 300 Austin construction workers, but the report also details trends from across the state. Some further highlights from the report:

* 45% of surveyed construction workers earned poverty level wages, while one in five workers reported being denied payment for their construction work. * 50% of construction workers reported not being paid overtime, and for many this resulted in the inability to pay for food and housing. * 1 in 5 surveyed workers suffered a workplace injury that required medical attention. * 64% of surveyed workers lacked basic health and safety training. Many were forced to provide their own safety equipment, with 47% of residential construction workers providing their own hard hats and safety belts. * Employers frequently misclassified workers as independent contractors instead of employees, thus stripping them of their rights to overtime pay, workers' compensation coverage and benefits.

The Workers Defense report also found that violations of workplace regulations are routine and often go unnoticed due to a lack of inspectors, with state as well as federal agencies ill-equipped to investigate or lax about enforcement.

In fact, most of the surveyed workers had never heard of government regulatory agencies like the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration or the Texas Workforce Commission, which has not performed field investigations since 1993.

A National Problem

While Texas has some of the worst construction job-related death rates, issues of workplace safety are a growing concern across the nation.

A report released in April by the AFL-CIO found that on any given day 15 working people will be killed on the job as a result of workplace injuries and disease. In 2007, close to 6,000 workers lost their lives on the job and more than 4 million other workers were hurt or made ill, according to AFL-CIO's Death on the Job 2009.

Labor advocates argue that little has been done in recent years at the federal level to improve job safety and protect workers. Many advocates are now looking to the Obama administration to strengthen the capacity of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

OSHA's ability to provide protection to workers has greatly diminished over the years. Advocates point out that under the Bush administration the safety agency was systematically stripped of its enforcement apparatus and aligned with business interests. The AFL-CIO report notes that years of budget cuts and inadequate funding crippled the agency's ability to adequately enforce workplace safety standards.

The Texas Observer provided this background on the shrinking of OSHA under the last Republican presidencies:

Safety inspections were a casualty of the government-shrinking ideology that prevailed in Washington following Ronald Reagan's election until the current economic crisis. Especially during George W. Bush's administration, the emphasis shifted from enforcement to voluntary compliance. Meanwhile, the ranks of OSHA inspectors have been thinning for years. In 1980, there were 1,469 -- 14.9 per million workers. By 2007, there were just 948 OSHA inspectors nationwide -- 6.4 for every million workers, the lowest level in the agency's history.

Routinely underfunded, understaffed and overwhelmed, OSHA currently has the ability to inspect every workplace only once every 137 years on average. Several of the states with the worst OSHA safety inspection rates are in the South. According to the AFL-CIO report, in several Southern states it would take 150 years or more for OSHA to pay a single visit to each workplace: 303 years in Arkansas, 259 years in Florida, 184 years in Georgia and 173 years in Louisiana.

Texas itself has the second-lowest number of OSHA inspectors in the nation after Florida. As as the Workers Defense report pointed out:

[The] United Nations' International Labor Organization recommends that 1,023 OSHA inspectors are needed to adequately investigate the number of worksites in Texas, yet in 2008 the state operated with only 77 inspectors to cover over 10,231,906 workers.