Texas Workers are Concerned About Their Safety After Harvey

by Terry Bryant

According to CBS News, in 2012 more workers died in Texas (433) than any other state. And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says that one in ten construction workers are injured every year; making it one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S, no matter whose survey you read. But when considering how much rebuilding is taking place on the upper Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Harvey; many local construction projects could be even more dangerous.

A large portion, as high as 40 percent in Houston – and upwards of a quarter million construction workers in Texas – are undocumented, unlikely to have health or life insurance, sick leave, or paid time off; so says a report published in 2017 by the Austin-based Workers Defense Project (WDP). The organization based its conclusions on interviews of over 1,400 construction workers throughout Texas.

Texas is the only state in the country that doesn’t require any type of workers’ compensation coverage, though it is available, and about two-thirds of the state’s employers carry some sort of workers’ comp insurance. But since workers’ comp is optional, employers appear less-inclined to spend a lot of time or money on creating safer workplaces. And with so many toxins in the floodwaters, who knows where they are now, who will encounter them, and whether employers will protect their workers from them?

“After disasters like Katrina, there is a lot of construction – rebuilding, repairs, and remodels, and a lot of (worker) exploitation,” says Bo Delp, Director of the Better Builder Program with the Workers Defense Project. “Texas is a uniquely bad state for construction workers in terms of conditions, A disaster like Harvey compounds these conditions,” he concludes.

A pair of surveys illustrate how the construction industry itself, coupled with racial bias, often deals in wage theft, unhealthy working conditions and other exploitations of low-end workers here on the upper Gulf Coast as we rebuild after Harvey.

A 2006 study from the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice revealed that six in 10 surveyed construction workers had experienced workplace abuses such as wage theft, along with health and safety violations. And another 2009 study – also of workforces in post-Katrina New Orleans – by the University of California at Berkeley found that there were pronounced differences between working conditions for undocumented workers, compared with documented, workers. Thirty-seven percent of undocumented workers said they were told beforehand that they might be exposed to mold and asbestos. But two-thirds of documented workers were informed. Furthermore, only one in five undocumented workers was paid time-and-a-half when they worked overtime.

The WDP’s Delp believes the primary offenders are the “the fly-by-night” contractors who “follow disasters” to make a quick buck and who sacrifice safety in favor of cheaper costs. Meanwhile, many worker advocates question whether OSHA and the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) are up to effectively addressing worker health and safety needs in the wake of Harvey. They cite both agencies’ past inability to work in tandem on behalf of workers after large disasters, coupled with the Trump Administration’s general disinterest in the plight of lower-level workers and those who are undocumented aliens. Workers and environmentalists are expressing safety fears.

Likely because of this, the Workers Defense Project is opening its third Texas office, this one in Houston. If you are a worker who is concerned for your jobsite safety, contact them.

If you have been injured on the job and want to explore your legal options, we encourage you to reach out to Terry Bryant Accident & Injury Law. To schedule a free consultation with Terry Bryant Accident & Injury Law, contact us today by filling out our online contact form or giving us a call at 1 (800) 444-5000 or locally in the Houston area at (713) 973-8888.

More information:

KUHF/The Texas Tribune: Harvey Means More Jobs. But Does It Mean More Exploitation Too?