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Study prompts questions of construction safety in Austin

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A study of work conditions in the local construction industry shows Austin's thriving growth may be borne on the backs of abused construction workers.

About 50 construction workers joined city leaders and workers-rights advocates at the Austin City Hall Tuesday to unveil the findings.

Local nonprofit Workers Defense Project and the University of Texas teamed up to conduct the study.

"The data we found in the study have a direct impact on making Texas the most deadly state to work in the country. With 142 workers having died in 2007, that's one worker dying every two and a half days in Texas," Workers Defense Project Director Christina Tzintzun said.

In the Austin area, there's been one construction death about every five months. The latest happened at a West Campus condo project. Three men fell to their deaths last Wednesday when the scaffolding they were on collapsed.

"I have kids and I want to see them every day when I get home from work," sheet metal worker Joe Charlez said.

Charlez said companies often pressure workers to take bigger risks than they should.

"A lot of employers will start pushing, saying 'Hurry up, let's get this job done,' so a lot of people start doing things that are unsafe," he said.

Austin City Councilman Mike Martinez said the abuses happen because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration lacks regulatory power in Texas.

"Texas is a right-to-work state. It's a non-OSHA state, so OSHA is more of a guideline in the state of Texas, it's not enforceable by law," he said.

Martinez said city and state officials must change those guidelines into rules, but just how they'll do that and when are still questions left to be answered.

According to the Texas Workforce Commission, Austin has about 50,000 people working in construction. National studies show Texas construction workers also earn $2-$3 less per hour than workers in other states.

Worker Defense Project

Workers Defense Project and University of Texas Launch Construction Worker Research Study

For the last six years, PDL has helped thousands of Austin workers win dignified treatment in the workplace. Though we help workers across industries, 80% of our workplace justice cases are from construction workers, who endure some of the most egregious types of abuse: no breaks, no pay, serious injury and even death on the job. Nationally, construction workers experience the second highest rate of injury and illness on the job, and construction workers are one of the top ten occupations with high fatality rates (1). In 2004, Texas was ranked second in the nation for workplace fatalities among Latina/o workers (2). In Travis County, foreign-born workers make up 70% of the labor force in the construction industry.

To address the systemic abuse in the construction industry, PDL has teamed up with the University of Texas and the Building Trades Unions to undertake one of the most comprehensive studies on the industry in the country, entitled Building Austin, Building Justice. In September, 2008, PDL construction worker members, union organizers, and UT students began carrying out surveys with hundreds of construction workers throughout Austin. The data from surveys, in-depth interviews, and public records will be used to compile a report that will unequivocally demonstrate the systemic abuse in the industry and outline concrete solutions. The report will come out June, 2009, to assist PDL and our building trades unions allies to pass local policy initiatives that will improve working conditions for thousands of construction workers in Travis County.

1 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
2 AFL-CIO. “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect—A National and State-by-State Profile of Worker Safety and Health in the United States.”

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