TX Construction Workers 12% More Likely to Be Killed on the Job

via the Dallas Morning News


Days after the Texas Workforce Commission praised the economy as strong in part due to the strength of the construction industry, the Dallas Morning News ran a weekend feature about the dangers of construction in the Lone Star State. Their investigative report echoes past arguments made by the Workers Defense Project and the AFL-CIO (“Death on the Job Report”).  

DMN writer James Gordon describes the dangers facing Texas construction workers amid a glaring lack of protections:

On average, a Texas worker is 12 percent more likely to be killed on the job than someone doing the same job elsewhere, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis of federal data. That translates to about 580 excess workplace deaths over a decade.

Construction has contributed mightily to Texas’ booming economy. And the state’s construction sites are 22 percent deadlier than the national average.

Forty percent of Texas’ excess death toll was among roofers, electricians and others in specialty construction trades. Such workers are sometimes treated as independent contractors, leaving them responsible for their own safety equipment and training. Many are undocumented immigrants.

Using federal data from 2003 through 2012, DMN found the following:

• Texas had 4,593 deaths; the expected toll was 4,014.
• California had 1,204 fewer deaths than expected.
• Texas had the highest rate of excess deaths among the 10 biggest states.
• There were 17 states with higher rates of excess deaths. But all of them had fewer than one-fourth of Texas’ workplace deaths, which statistically skews the comparison.
• While oil and gas drilling is among the most dangerous industries in the U.S., Texas’ fatality rate in that industry was 62 percent below average. There were 49 fewer deaths than expected.
• The most excess deaths in Texas were among specialty construction trades. There were 719 such fatalities, or 242 beyond what would have been expected.

Importantly, DMN details the ways in which unions make construction sites safer. They describe the thoroughness associated with union safety training and explain the value of unions to both worker safety and wages.  They also crunch the numbers to show how “Right-to-Work” affects workplace fatalities.  

On a Saturday morning, 35 ironworkers are gathered at the Local 263 union hall in Arlington. Safety instructor Robert Cothren projects construction-site photos on a cinderblock wall and asks his trainees to yell out what’s wrong.

“No safety lanyard!” someone yells. “Those scaffolds won’t pass code!” someone else follows.

Ironworkers erect the steel skeletons of large buildings. Because their job is often worked hundreds of feet off the ground, they like to call themselves “sky cowboys.”

To qualify for a full journeyman’s wage — $23 an hour in Texas — ironworkers have to complete this 30-hour safety course designed by OSHA. It’s a condition of their collective bargaining agreement.

Cothren, who’s 63, has been an ironworker for nearly four decades. Besides teaching in the evenings and weekends, he works eight-hour shifts on job sites, watching over apprentices.

“My favorite part is when I get a call from a contractor or a job site superintendent who says, ‘Send me five more just like the last ones,’” Cothren said.

Texas is a right-to-work state. That means workers aren’t required to join a union if one exists for their shop. Texas has the sixth-lowest rate of union membership in the country.

The News’ analysis found that states with weaker labor unions tended to have a higher fatality rate. Long-term academic research that studied other factors has come to similar conclusions.

While these findings are not exactly news to those who follow the subject, it is vital that the general public understand the gravity of the matter. The economic culture of Texas, a regulation-free wild west, is as much to blame for high fatality rates as the unscrupulous contractors who place their workers in harm’s way. Unfortunately, as American history has proven, regional cultural norms can be incredibly difficult to change. Could the Dallas Morning News light a spark, locally at least, that begins a conversation about changing how Texas does business? Or one about the true impact of “Right-to-Work” on workplace safety?

We’ll have to check the Facebook shares next week.

NOTE: The “Right-to-Work” chart pictured above is interactive. Visit the DMN article for its full utility.

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