Man Faces Bleak Future After Work-Related Injury
A male worker was tearing up a concrete roof with 8 other laborers when he fell nearly 20 feet to the ground. When he fell, the ground was littered with dirty insulation, tar-covered roof decking, and fire-suppression water pipes that were taken from the building's interior. While the federal authorities require it, the worker was not wearing proper safety equipment such as a hard hat and harness—since the chances of a surprise inspection at the time was minimal.
Said worker was well aware that accidents could happen—he had just lost his left eye almost a year earlier while working for the same contractor who was running the demolition site. He continued working through the summer heat and challenging work environment in hopes to return to his home in Mexico with enough money to support his family. However, when he went to push a slab of concrete decking off the roof, the worker lost his balance and slipped off the roof. He did manage to grab onto a piece of metal rebar jutting out, but only held on to said object for a few seconds before falling to the ground.
Dangerous Job Sites and Injuries Are Common
An expert witness hired by the worker's lawyer said that the job site the man was working on was one of the most hazardous he had seen in his 40 years of engineering practice. The contractor who hired the injured worker denied all responsibility for accidents that occurred on his job sites, as he stated all workers on his sites were responsible for obtaining and wearing their own safety equipment.
Unfortunately, safety experts and advocates for injured workers relay that injuries on job sites similar to said injured worker's is common in the area. Unskilled laborers frequently sustain injuries while performing dangerous jobs. Since Texas does not require it, there is no state-provided workers' compensation insurance or any other private equivalent. Instead, taxpayers and charities must pay for injured workers' medical care. For the contractor, however, more undocumented laborers are hired and work continues as normal.
A Houston workplace safety consultant stated that no one wants to discuss the unhealthy subculture and what is occurring at these types of job sites. Instead, it is ignored and employers are encouraged to relocate to Texas to partake in the "Texas miracle." Said miracle often involves hiring undocumented workers, leaving injured workers to fend for themselves, and finding more undocumented workers to take their place.
Even though Texas has created more jobs than any other state in the last decade, it also means more workers are dying throughout the state. Approximately 60% of the Texas construction industry never receives formal safety training and as a result, 1 in 5 workers reports sustaining an injury that requires medical attention on a job. Lawmakers have attempted to make workers' compensation insurance mandatory in the construction industry, but with Texas' pro-business attitude, it hasn't happened yet.
Who can help injured workers?
The federal government's Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) can assist Texas construction workers who work on unsafe job sites. However, in 2012, there was only 1 OHSA inspector for every 104,000 Texas workers, which is one of the lowest ratios in the nation. The OHSA does strive to make construction sites safer, but cannot help injured workers who do not have money or workplace insurance.
The worker who fell off the roof ended up having a $841,000 medical bill and sustained life-changing injuries. He has no recollection of the fall itself and for weeks, he couldn't talk or move. He could only lie in the hospital bed and listen to the conversations around him. It was later he learned he was paralyzed from the chest down.
The man who hired the worker and his nephew was described to be a man who liked all jobs completed quickly so he could get paid. In sworn depositions, the contractor denied any responsibility for the accidents that occurred on his job sites. He paid his workers as nonemployee subcontractors and told them to wear personal safety equipment, although he didn't consider it his job to provide said equipment.
The contractor who had the job site where the worker fell also had the job site where the same worker sustained his eye injury. While the man and the contractor were installing a large garage door on a metal building, a metal joint broke and struck the worker in the eye. Since he didn't have money to have the injured eye replaced with a glass eye, the worker was forced to leave his damaged, useless eye in the socket. Due to his injury, he was afraid another contractor wouldn't hire him, which is why he kept returning to the same contractor for work.
The day after the fall occurred, the nephew of the worker stated that workers returned to the roof with no hard hats or fall protection—as if nothing had happened the day before. OHSA has no record of the worker's fall, but that is not unheard of. It often takes more than a single serious accident to spur a mandatory OHSA investigation. However, the OHSA did investigate the contractor a little less than three years after said worker's fall. This time, a worker was killed, which mandatorily launched an OHSA investigation. The OHSA fined the contractor $5,100, but the contractor claimed he would never pay the fine, as it was the construction workers' fault for any accidents that occurred.
Since then, the contractor has forfeited its corporate charter and is no longer in good standing with the Texas secretary of state's office. While this means there is one less inhumane contractor in the State of Texas, hundreds more remain—waiting to hire undocumented laborers and replace them with other laborers if / when their current workers become injured or die. Until workers' compensation for all construction workers becomes mandatory, very little can change in this industry regarding workers' safety.