Discussion of a nine-month investigation by the Houston Chronicle that found that some, and perhaps many, of the deaths, illnesses and injuries in the construction industry are preventable. It found that workers in the building trades often are abandoned, even betrayed, by industry, government, medicine and the legal system. Part of a collection. Click on the 'collection' button to access the other items.
|Jim Morris cannot be reached at the Chronicle. If you have questions about these reports, contact CPWR – Center for Construction Research and Training, 301-578-8500.|
"He that hath
a trade hath an estate; he that hath a calling hath an office of profit
and honor." -- Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanack, 1758.
"I loved the
trade. But basically, the trade has killed me." -- Lung-damaged carpenter
Ben Hitchcock, 52, of Greenville, Texas, 1994.
A pipefitter's helper succumbs to poisonous gas because no one gave him a portable oxygen bottle. Three young laborers are asphyxiated, one after the other, when they are sent into a manhole without the proper training.
A middle-aged industrial painter lives the doleful life of a sick old man because he sandblasted and used solvents. A once-energetic ironworker is transformed into an invalid by metal-laden welding fumes.
More than 7 million
Americans -- among them 400,000 Texans -- work full- or part-time in construction.
They build and rebuild highways, bridges, factories, houses and office
install roofs and wiring, tear out insulation, weld beams, replace industrial pipes and valves, lay brick and carpet, clean up hazardous waste.
It is inherently dangerous work, with hazards both chronic and acute: Dusts constrict the lungs. Vapors attack the central nervous system. Gases kill instantly. Scaffolds collapse and plants explode.
But a nine-month investigation by the Houston Chronicle found that some, and perhaps many, of the deaths, illnesses and injuries in the construction industry are preventable. It found that workers in the building trades often are abandoned, even betrayed, by industry, government, medicine and the legal system.
evidence indicates that construction workers develop disabling and life-shortening
diseases more frequently, and at younger ages, than workers in other fields.
many cases employers know, or should know, about the insidious hazards that cause these ailments, as well as the more obvious sources of traumatic injury.
And statistics suggest
conditions are especially poor in Texas. New federal data show that the
state had more construction industry deaths than any other in the 1980s.
During the period,
1,436 construction workers in Texas lost their lives. California and New York, with larger populations, had 990 and 481 construction deaths, respectively.
In 1992, the last
year for which complete data are available, Texas construction workers
died on the job at a rate 50 percent higher than the national average.
The 94 men and one woman killed
in Texas that year fell from scaffolds and were electrocuted, asphyxiated, poisoned, crushed, blown up and hit by vehicles.
There is no way to know how many others developed work-related cancer, asbestosis, silicosis, lead poisoning and other serious ailments. Such illnesses "tend to get lost in the excitement about traumatic deaths," said Dr. James Cone, an occupational medicine specialist in San Francisco. "People are most concerned about their immediate survival."
EVEN more troubling than the numbers are the reasons building trades workers in Texas and throughout the United States continue to die, get hurt and fall ill at rates far above those in other industrialized nations and some Canadian provinces. Denial or minimization of risk are commonplace not only among employers, but also among industry-oriented doctors and politically pressured government officials.
"There is so little sympathy for these people in our society," said Knut Ringen, director of CPWR – Center for Construction Research and Training, the research arm of the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department. "There's a deep trait that goes through the American culture, and that is that once you're in a workplace you're part of production and the democratic rights you would typically take for granted do not operate."
Walter DeJardin, a 49-year-old disabled roofer from Lynn, Mass., knows this all too well.
"What do you
do when you find out, after 20 years of working with something, that the
stuff is bad for you?" he asked. "Do you walk away? Ignore it?
It's a tough situation for the worker.
Management doesn't like to be slowed down, because time is money, and they don't want to educate you. If you ask for too many things, like water, they'll get rid of you."
DeJardin, who worked for 10 contractors between 1968 and 1992, suffers from solvent-related nerve damage, irritability and depression. He fears he will develop cancer from fumes given off by hot waterproofing materials: asphalt and coal tar pitch.
"Down the road, there's going to be millions of people showing up with all kinds of lumps inside them," DeJardin said. "I don't know, in 10 years, what may be growing inside me."
The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that in 1992, 209,000 U.S. construction workers were hurt or sickened on the job to the extent that they lost time from work; another 903 were killed.
The numbers -- especially
for illnesses -- almost certainly are low. The Occupational Safety and
Health Administration stated in February that illnesses "are probably
grossly underreported" in the construction industry.
IN its investigation,
the Chronicle interviewed more than 350 people and reviewed thousands
of pages of industry, government, medical and legal documents. More than
three dozen requests for
information were made under the federal Freedom of Information Act and the Texas Open Records Act.
Among the findings:
Some refineries, chemical plants and contractors along the upper Texas Gulf Coast still violate fundamental health and safety rules, such as providing proper respiratory protection for crafts workers in the presence of potentially lethal chemicals and ensuring that work permits clearly spell out any required protective measures. Since August 1991, for example, at least four workers in the region have died from exposure to hydrogen sulfide, a fast-acting toxic gas. Three of the four plant owners were cited by OSHA for serious violations.
Corporate officials knew decades ago about a variety of life-threatening chemical hazards at refineries and chemical plants but often failed to protect workers. Internal memoranda and studies obtained by the Chronicle show a remarkable depth of knowledge about asbestos insulation, benzene and other compounds years before companies acknowledged even vague associations between these substances and disease.
A 1948 toxicological review prepared for the American Petroleum Institute states that because of benzene's link to leukemia and other cancers of the blood-forming organs, "the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero." When the next petroleum institute review was published in 1960, that telling phrase was omitted.
Huge stakes in cases involving exposure to asbestos and other substances lead litigants to pay top dollar for favorable expert testimony. The resulting range of opinion makes it difficult for sick workers to confirm the causes and degrees of their ailments. A Beaumont hospital, for example, changed lung-function testing standards and procedures at the instruction of asbestos companies that hired the hospital to test plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit. The changes made it more difficult to diagnose disease in workers who alleged they had been harmed by asbestos in refineries and chemical plants.
The University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston moved so slowly to create and enhance programs to address occupational illnesses and injuries that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health canceled funding to the university for five years in the 1980s. The school's director of occupational medicine has had a long association with industry and virtually always testifies against workers in asbestos exposure cases.
The oil industry
was warned at least as early as 1958 that the increasing use of contract
crafts workers for maintenance could subject these workers to harmful
exposures. In its final report on
a study of cancer among industry workers -- a study that was inconclusive due to lack of cooperation from some oil companies -- the University of Cincinnati's Kettering Laboratory told the API that the growth of contract labor "may diminish the exposure hazard for the refinery worker" but "may be concentrating and augmenting the danger" for contract workers. In 1982 Dr. Robert T. Cheng, a senior industrial hygienist with Chevron in Richmond, Calif., reported in a memo that "industrial hygienists have encountered resistance from plant management with regard to surveying contractor workers" and listed a number of hazardous substances -- from hydrofluoric acid to nickel -- to which these workers could be overexposed.
When government or private industrial hygienists look for health hazards in construction, they often find them. In 1992, OSHA's Philadelphia regional office began a "local emphasis" program for lead in construction; it wound up citing 23 companies in three states and the District of Columbia. One of the firms cited, the E. Smalis Painting Co. of Tarentum, Pa., faces proposed fines totaling $5 million, an OSHA record for a single employer on a construction site.
Last spring, eight workers sandblasting paint off an old building in Galveston were overexposed to lead dust; two were so sick they had to be hospitalized. In July, OSHA cited Central Construction Services of Katy for 25 alleged lead-related violations and proposed fines totaling $18,300. Among the alleged violations, all of which were classified by OSHA as "serious," were failure to provide workers with appropriate respirators and other protective clothing, failure to train and failure to perform medical surveillance.
Frank Parker, an industrial hygiene consultant in Magnolia, said the most pervasive problem he sees is unsafe entry into confined spaces, such as chemical storage tanks. "People have basically no pre-entry routine for knowing what chemicals are in there," Parker said. "These tanks are used for everything. I did a case in Wyoming last year where a kid was sent in to clean a tank, was overcome by chemicals, fell and drowned in residual solvents."
NIOSH did on-site investigations of 70 confined-space deaths between 1983 and 1993. There were more of these deaths -- 18 -- in construction than any other industry.
Hispanics, who make up much of the construction work force in Texas and other states, may be at elevated risk of illness, injury and death because of language difficulties and employers' apathy.
"When one dies, you go get another one," said Houston attorney Glenn Douglas, who has represented the families of hundreds of dead construction workers, most of them Hispanic. "It's like buying a hammer at Ace Hardware."
In one of Douglas' recent cases, three contract laborers -- ages 24, 27 and 40 -- were asphyxiated after being sent, without required confined-spaces training, into a 14-foot sewage manhole near Mount Pleasant in northeast Texas.
OSHA fined the contractor, Onco Enterprises of Round Rock, $3,000 per death, an amount Douglas finds preposterous.
"This was the single most callous treatment of employees I've ever seen," he said. "This contractor was ripe to get its bell rung." Onco officials could not be located for comment.
Health and safety
compliance officers in OSHA's Region VI, which includes Texas and four
other states, say they are pressured to generate inspection "numbers"
to meet agency-imposed goals. Inspection quality, the officers say, often
yields to quantity, and deaths, illnesses and injuries may be occurring
as a result. Construction sites are prime inspection targets because they
typically yield numerous -- though often minor -- safety violations; time-consuming construction health inspections tend to fall by the wayside. Gilbert Saulter, OSHA's regional administrator in Dallas, said that "while we use numbers to gauge our performance, quality and elimination of hazards is our goal."
Regulators and researchers cannot make accurate estimates of the incidence of construction industry illnesses and injuries because the reporting of data is so spotty. Some employers flout OSHA record-keeping rules, which require that all but the most minor work-related injuries and illnesses be logged and made available for inspection by workers as well as the agency. OSHA chief Joe Dear called record-keeping "extremely important. If you don't know where the problems are, you can't target the resources."
OSHA has just completed a major record-keeping inspection at the headquarters of BE&K Inc. of Birmingham, Ala., one of the nation's biggest construction contractors. Sources say the agency has found violations of nonreporting and late reporting and is considering penalties. Last year OSHA cited BE&K for failing to report 19 injuries at a Maine paper mill and proposed a $70,000 fine; BE&K paid $30,000 in February under terms of a settlement. In August the Tennessee Department of Labor's Division of Occupational Safety and Health proposed penalties of $125,000 against the company for record-keeping violations at a construction site in Chattanooga.
Said BE&K's chairman and chief executive officer, Ted C. Kennedy: "We made some mistakes. We don't think we have a record-keeping problem, but we audit ourselves and we are being audited."
The Texas workers' compensation system, restructured four years ago after much debate, can be a harrowing maze for workers, the majority of whom lack legal representation at decisive contested-case hearings. Those who claim to have work-related illnesses, as opposed to clearly defined injuries, may have the hardest time of all. Insurance carriers in most cases are represented by experienced attorneys and pay expert medical witnesses hundreds of dollars an hour to testify that workers' ailments are not work-related. Even before the hearing, a worker may be sent to a doctor who -- unknown to the patient -- makes large sums of money from insurance companies or employers.
THESE abuses and deficiencies hit hard against trades which, for more than a century, offered gratifying, if demanding, life's work to young Americans. Building trades workers were admired and appreciated.
"The callous palms of the laborer are conversant with finer tissues of self-respect and heroism," wrote Henry David Thoreau in his essay "Walking," published in 1862.
Much has changed.
On the positive side, construction jobs are generally safer than they were decades ago, as companies have acknowledged dangers long denied or have been forced into safer practices by regulators.
But even as hundreds
of exotic chemicals appear in the workplace, fewer construction workers
belong to unions and serve apprenticeships, and training is sporadic.
More workers speak
languages other than English. Small, seat-of-the-pants contractors abound. And contract workers lack the long-term connections with specific companies and familiarity with work sites that foster
Two years ago in San Francisco, Kennedy, of contractor BE&K, looked out over an audience of chemical plant and refinery owners and began a diatribe.
Workers, he said, were being treated like "seasonal harvest hands," with few benefits and little job security. Project owners were obsessed with the bottom line and seemed not to care whether craftspeople made decent wages or had safe workplaces. Contractors were "whores" who eagerly sold their services to the owners, "just as a prostitute sells her body."
"We'll train you -- on your own time -- and we'll send you to jobs that are hot, cold and certainly dirty," said Kennedy, whose company is nonunion and who has emerged as a spokesman for that segment of the industry. "You'll have to leave your family and likely share less-than-desirable living accommodations. You'll be exposed to one of the more dangerous occupations, but if the law doesn't protect you, in all likelihood we won't either.
"And for all this goodness, what do we ask in return? Enthusiasm, loyalty, hard work, initiative and a hearty smile."