A Center for Popular Democracy report released on Thursday reveals that the majority of construction site accident victims in New York State are Latinos and/or immigrant workers. In an eight-year overview of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigations between 2003 to 2011, the researchers found that punitive measures to impose construction worker safety are often meager and its resulting criminal penalties are almost never followed through, especially at non-union work sites.
Only 34 percent of all construction workers in New York state are Latino and/or an immigrant, but they comprise 60 percent of all OSHA-investigated “fall from an elevation fatalities” in the state. That number climbs to 74 percent in New York City and skyrockets to 88 percent in Queens and 87 percent in Brooklyn.
Latinos, some of whom make up the 17 percent undocumented construction worker population, stay on hazardous workplace sites because refusal to work could mean deportation. A 2002 Supreme Court ruling makes it difficult for undocumented workers to seek basic labor protections because they weren’t legally allowed to work in the first place.
Many of these workers are in the US to support their families abroad. According to the New York Daily News, Daniel Basilio, a Mexican immigrant from Hidalgo, fell four stories and died on route to the hospital. Hours after he died, his wife in Mexico gave birth to his second child.
Basilio’s tragedy is just one of 400,000 construction site deaths that have occurred since 1970. One study showed that at least 85 percent of day laborers were “routinely abused,” including receiving substantially less pay than was agreed upon, receiving bad checks, being unable to take breaks or water, and subjected to robbery and threats, and exposed to chemical wastes and occupational hazards.
New York State has had worker protection laws, like the Scaffold Law, in place since the 1880s. That law makes owners and contractors directly liable for providing a safe workplace for workers who are otherwise too afraid to report unsafe conditions. Owners and contractors must provide worker’s compensation and health care for medical care, pain, and suffering if their safety equipment cause serious injury.
But the Scaffold Law is hard to implement given that OSHA fines are meager and do little to improve construction site violations. Penalties generally run between $2,000 (for a serious injury) to $12,000 (for a fatality)– a paltry sum equivalent to the price of an used car. Also, OSHA inspectors have cut down on the number of OSHA visits due to budget cuts, to the point where an average workplace only receives an OSHA visit every 99 years.