Dying to Build

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On Oct. 23, 2006, 19-year-old Omar Puerto was painting trim and preparing to install rain gutters on a three-story apartment building in South Austin. It was his third day on the job. So far, the main challenge had been moving the heavy 40-foot aluminum ladder; he and a fellow worker had struggled with it all three days.

Behind the men was a spider’s web of electrical wires leading from the apartment building to a 7,200-volt transformer. Federal law requires that workers be trained before working around live wires. The law also says that any exposed wiring must be clearly marked. These wires weren’t. And Puerto, according to his family, had gotten no training.

Now it was time to coax the 40-foot ladder toward the next section of wall. As Puerto and his partner yanked and pulled, the ladder hit an exposed wire connected to the transformer. The guy on the other end of the ladder took off running. Puerto had so much voltage running through his body that he couldn’t release his grip. He died right there.

Puerto’s sister, Martha, keeps a framed photograph of her younger brother on the living room wall of her modest Austin home. Puerto lived with her before the fatal accident. He had moved to the United States three years earlier from the rural farming town of Yoro in mountainous northern Honduras. Like so many immigrants, he found plentiful work in the booming Texas construction trade.

“He was such a hard worker,” Martha says. While he dreamt of buying his own Toyota Tacoma truck, Puerto gave most of his earnings to his family. “Each month, he sent $1,200 to our parents to build a house in Honduras,” Martha says. Puerto hoped to rejoin them before long. “He wanted to make his money,” Martha says, “then go home in five or six years.”

Instead, Omar Puerto returned to Honduras in a casket. His death was tragic and unnecessary—but hardly unusual.

A construction worker dies in Texas every 2 1/2 days. No other state in the country has as many construction-related deaths: 142 fatalities were reported in 2007, up from 131 the year Puerto died, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s most recent statistics. The causes are far from mysterious: lax enforcement of labor and safety regulations, too many overtime hours without rest breaks and a lack of safety training and equipment.

In Puerto’s case, safety training—as mandated by law—and a fiberglass ladder would likely have prevented his death. The only restitution made by Gutter Tech, the Austin company that hired Puerto, was $5,000 to have his body shipped back to his parents in Yoro. Since Gutter Tech had no worker’s compensation insurance—Texas is the only state where that’s optional—Puerto’s family was stuck with $8,000 in hospital bills for the autopsy and ambulance ride.

Gutter Tech, which did not respond to interview requests for this story, was fined $4,950 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Puerto’s brother-in-law, Arthur Ortega, thinks that’s a pittance to pay for a man’s life. “I read the autopsy reports and it was a horrible death,” Ortega says. “It should never have happened.”

Puerto’s family has been pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit against Gutter Tech and the owners of the apartment building. They’ve had little luck finding a lawyer to take the case, however, because the company is a small business that had no insurance, Puerto says.

“I had to move out of my home after Omar died,” Martha says, looking at the framed photo of her brother. “I couldn’t stay there anymore after he was gone—I just left everything behind, it made me so sad.”

While the housing crisis has pricked the construction bubble elsewhere in the country, Texas still has America’s most vibrant market. In a February 2008 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Texas, author D’Ann Peterson cited two keys to the state’s success: “ample land supply and relatively few regulations on construction.”

The lack of regulations—and enforcement—exacts a price from workers. “Every month we are seeing more workers,” says Cristina Tzintzún of the Austin-based Workers Defense Project, a nonprofit group that helps construction workers seek unpaid wages and restitution for injuries. “And these are only a small portion of what’s out there because law firms typically take on these injury cases.”

Workers Defense has just completed a study of construction workers’ safety and wage issues in Austin. For three months, volunteers visited construction sites, asking workers on lunch break or leaving the site a series of questions about workplace safety, wages and labor laws. Altogether, the researchers spoke with 312 workers.

The report, Building Equality, Building Justice, will be released on June 16; the group shared its findings in advance with the Observer. They are eye-opening. “It was far worse than we had even imagined,” says Tzintzún, who thought she’d heard it all.

Researchers found that Austin construction workers—whether they’re legal immigrants, undocumented workers or seventh-generation Anglos—have plenty in common: Most work long hours without overtime. Few receive adequate safety training. And few get basic safety equipment when they’re hired for a job. 

“Texas has failed to guarantee even basic safety and labor protections,” Tzintzún says.

At least 45 percent of the workers surveyed earned poverty-level wages. One in five had been injured on the job. Sixty-four percent said they had not gotten basic safety or health training. Many reported that they’d had to bring their own hard hats and safety belts to both government-funded and private-job sites.

Most construction workers had never heard of government regulatory agencies like OSHA or the Texas Workforce Commission. Safety inspections are left up to the federal agency, which is stretched thin: OSHA has a regional office in Dallas that also serves four surrounding states.

Safety first? A worksite in Austin. Photo by Lesley Nowlin.Despite its construction boom, Texas has the second-lowest number of OSHA inspectors in the nation—after Florida, which was also booming for many years. According to a 2008 report by the AFL-CIO, Death on the Job, it would take the 77 OSHA inspectors in Texas 144 years to visit every workplace in the state at least once. That breaks down to about one inspector for every 132,000 workers, according to Tzintzun’s calculations. The benchmark established by the U.N.’s International Labor Organization is one for every 10,000.

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.

Pedro Hernandez, a 39-year-old roofer, says he has never seen an OSHA inspector in 10 years working on Austin construction sites. But he knows firsthand what happens when there’s nothing but “voluntary compliance” to keep contractors in line.

Two years ago, Hernandez went to work for a small roofing contractor, installing a roof on a two-story home in East Austin. OSHA requires a safety harness for anyone working construction at a height of six feet or more. Hernandez wasn’t given one. He didn’t think much of it, he says, because he’d never once been provided with either a harness or a hard hat. (Safety harnesses for roofers cost $200 to $300 apiece.)

Hernandez ran out of luck on that East Austin roof. He slipped and tumbled 14 feet, landing on his back. For four days, he lay in intensive care at Brackenridge Hospital, unable to move his arms or legs. The doctor said he might be paralyzed for life. Making matters worse, the roofing contractor wouldn’t pay for the work he’d done. And the contractor didn’t carry worker’s compensation, so Hernandez would have to pay the $7,000 in hospital bills.

After six months, Hernandez was able to walk again. In the meantime, he hadn’t been able to send money to his two young children. And he’d lost his apartment. “When I got out of the hospital I had to go live in a shelter,” Hernandez says. He still has pain in his right leg and back, and gets debilitating headaches. But he’s back at work, wearing an elastic back brace under his tool belt. On bad days, he takes pain medication. “The doctor at the hospital told me I’d need rehabilitation,” he says, “but I had no way to pay for it.

“I know many men who have had accidents,” Hernandez says. “The bosses, they don’t give you any safety equipment. I don’t agree with this. I think they should provide equipment.”

Hispanic construction workers suffer disproportionately from the lack of worksite regulation and enforcement in Texas. In 2007, Hispanics accounted for 55 percent of the state’s construction deaths (leading the nation in yet another grim category).

Solid statistics on injuries are tough to come by, partly because undocumented workers are often reluctant to report problems. Rebecca Smith, coordinator of the Immigrant Worker Justice Program at the nonprofit National Employee Law Project, says undocumented workers are the most vulnerable of all construction workers. “Employers feel they can get away with breaking the law because the worker will be afraid to report it,” she says. “The number of fatalities in Texas is beyond shameful—it’s tragic.”

“To us, it isn’t an immigrant issue, it’s an industry issue that affects all construction workers,” says Tzintzun of the Workers Defense Project. “But we did find that some workers were afraid to come forward and report abuses because of immigration enforcement.”

The language barrier between many Hispanic and Anglo workers can exacerbate the existing problems on Texas worksites. Cody Clegg, an electrician for 13 years, says communication between English- and Spanish-speaking workers is the No. 1 safety issue at his current job in Austin. “A guy came up to me yesterday and said something in Spanish,” Clegg says. “He could have been asking for toothpaste or telling me that they had just knocked down a wall—I had no idea.”

Clegg says his Spanish-speaking co-workers are routinely mistreated. A bilingual worker told him the men had been brought to Austin from Orlando, Fla. “They were paid $14 an hour in Florida and now they are getting $12 an hour here,” Clegg says. “They were also told they have to buy their own safety harnesses, and they are being housed 10 to 12 workers to an apartment.

“If an employer told me he wouldn’t provide a safety harness,” Clegg says, “I wouldn’t work for him.”

With the state doing nothing to ensure that workers are properly trained and equipped, a Dallas contractor has tried to pick up the slack. Javier Arias is chairman of Hispanic Contractors Association de Tejas, which has six chapters around the state providing Spanish-language safety courses for contractors and foremen. With a $190,000 OSHA grant this year, the group now offers free, 10-hour safety training to Spanish-speaking workers as well. It’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s something.

“This is something we’ve been working on since 2000,” says Arias. “Change is not going to happen overnight—it’s going to take time.”

Clegg has seen too much to be hopeful. He says that safety  is often sacrificed on smaller jobs with limited budgets. “On a $5 million project there will be safety officers and training,” he says. “But sometimes on a $50,000 project you are on your own.”

Clegg has some advantages over many of his co-workers. An Anglo, he has no language barrier with the bosses and no worries about being undocumented. He carefully considers safety risks before taking a job. He learned the hard way about those risks. During his first year as an electrician, Clegg was working with an apprentice electrician who hadn’t been properly trained and mistakenly grabbed a live wire.

“I kicked the wire out of his hand,” Clegg recalls. “He had third-degree burns on his arms and hands and blood coming out of his eyes, ears and nose. It was gruesome.”

Clegg, who is married with two children, almost gave up the trade. “I didn’t want to end up like that,” he says. “But I had a baby on the way and I had to make a living.

“I have to consider the risk,” Clegg says. “I’ve been on some small jobs where I’ve been the only person in the building at the time. If something were to happen and I became unconscious—I’d be dead before anyone found me.”

When you’re working construction in Texas, it’s hard not to conjure up such nightmare scenarios.

Investigative reporting for this article was supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Institute.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.