Page 15


Safety first? A worksite in Austin. photo by Lesley Nowlin number of OSHA inspectors in the nationafter 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 io,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 io 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 twostory 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 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!’ JUNE 12, 2009 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11