Excellent Dallas Morning News expose on dangerous work in the Texas construction industry.
More workers die here than in any other state. On average, a Texas worker is 12 percent more likely to be killed on the job than someone doing the same job elsewhere, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis of federal data.
That translates to about 580 excess workplace deaths over a decade.
Construction has contributed mightily to Texas’ booming economy. And the state’s construction sites are 22 percent deadlier than the national average.
Forty percent of Texas’ excess death toll was among roofers, electricians and others in specialty construction trades. Such workers are sometimes treated as independent contractors, leaving them responsible for their own safety equipment and training. Many are undocumented immigrants.
Government and industry here have invested relatively little in safety equipment, training and inspections, researchers say. And Texas is one of the toughest places to organize unions, which can promote safety.
“There’s a Wild West culture here,” said University of Texas law professor Thomas McGarity, who has written several books about regulation. Texans often think, “We don’t want some nanny state telling workers how to work and, by implication, telling employers how to manage the workplace,” he said.
The Texas construction industry flourishes in the state’s business-friendly climate, Gov. Rick Perry has said.
“Let free enterprise reign, and be wary of overregulation,” he declared in a 2009 speech at the Central Texas Construction Expo. “All that regulation adds to your overhead, and you can’t operate at a profit.”
Which is more important than keeping workers alive.
What causes this higher danger?
A 2013 report by the Workers Defense Project, an Austin-based advocacy group, estimated that 41 percent of construction workers in Texas are improperly treated as independent contractors.
A state law passed in the last legislative session allows a fine of $200 for each misclassified worker found at a publicly funded project. The Texas Workforce Commission says it has issued one fine under the new law.
In Illinois, a similar law also covers construction companies working on private projects. A roofing contractor there was fined $1.6 million for having 10 misclassified workers.
“Now that’s a deterrent,” said Mike Cunningham, executive director of a labor union association called Texas Building Trades.
What would fix the problem?
Texas is a right-to-work state. That means workers aren’t required to join a union if one exists for their shop. Texas has the sixth-lowest rate of union membership in the country.
The News’ analysis found that states with weaker labor unions tended to have a higher fatality rate. Long-term academic research that studied other factors has come to similar conclusions.
In conclusion, Texans will continue to die while working construction. That many are undocumented immigrants is a feature of the system.