Posted with permission from Confined Space, a newsletter of workplace safety and labor issues.
Substandard conditions in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey have impacted workers’ health and safety on the job, as well as their wages according to a devastating new report from from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and University of Illinois Chicago that surveyed 360 workers. The report also offers recommendations for improving working conditions during post-disaster recovery operations.
Hurricanes and other disasters present a major challenge for OSHA and other local and national government agencies dedicated to protecting workers during recovery operations. As the report notes, day laborers take on the dangerous work of helping residents and business owners with the removal of debris, the demolition of damaged structures; and the repair and rebuilding of damaged structures. “These include dangers associated with contaminated water, downed electrical wires, damaged and unstable structures, and exposure to mold and other fungi. For those who are working at unsafe heights to repair roofs, trim trees, and replace siding, there is a danger of falling from building tops, scaffolds, or ladders.”
These hazards are compounded by long work hours, the rapid pace of work and the unknown dangers of the specific hazards at any given worksite.
|Hurricanes and other disasters present a major challenge for OSHA and other local and national government agencies dedicated to protecting workers during recovery operations.|
The report describes how recovery workers, defined as “second responders” work in hazardous conditions without training or proper equipment, and are injured as a result. According to the researchers,
In addition to the health and safety issues, recovery workers also rampant wage theft. “In just the first four weeks of disaster recovery, more than one-quarter (26%) of day laborers have been victims of wage theft and the total amount of unpaid wages across this workforce in this short period exceeded $20,000.”
Compounding the health and safety, and wage and hour problems, “nearly two-thirds (64%) of the day laborers who identified themselves as being undocumented immigrants indicated that they do not feel safe asking for help from government officials.” There are an estimated 575,000 undocumented immigrants in the Houston area and 72 percent of day laborers in the area are undocumented. And even if they were comfortable approaching government officials for help, very few workers even knew what agencies to approach.
The report also had a number of recommendations, including:
A Day in the Life
A recent Associated Press article about day laborers in Houston described the conditions that the day laborers work under and how many of them are unaccustomed to construction work and have come in from other areas.
Another worker, Martin Mares, a native of Mexico who came to Houston more than 20 years ago, reported that he “recently saw a pregnant woman cleaning an apartment building that had flooded without wearing gloves. ‘People don’t analyze it. They don’t see the consequences’ Mares said. ‘They go to work without knowing whether the business will even pay them.'”
An article by Think Progress describes the other problems facing undocumented workers in the Houston area.
None of this information is a major surprise to OSHA or workplace safety and health experts. We’ve been seeing untrained and ill-equipped workers getting hurt, and sometimes killed in every natural disaster — Katrina, Sandy and now Harvey. (And God only knows what’s happening in Puerto Rico.)
OSHA responds by moving staff into the affected region from other parts of the country. But that’s expensive, and OSHA rarely is provided with additional funding to address natural disasters. OSHA has also worked closely with local worker centers and labor unions who provide advice and services for day laborers. After Sandy, which hit the New York and New Jersey region in 2013, some of the worker centers had already received Susan Harwood Training grants, ensuring that many day laborers already had training. OSHA also worked with a number of public health organizations and equipment manufacturers to ensure that adequate personal protective equipment was available. And Congress, as part of the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, provided an additional $1.2 million to provide funding to worker centers focusing on Sandy recovery.
|There is no excuse to not be prepared to protect the workers that help rebuild peoples homes — and their lives — after a disaster.|
But much more needs to be done on the federal level. Here are a few ideas:
We have now had the benefit of learning the lessons from disasters like 9/11, Katrina, Sandy and now Harvey. Protecting clean-up workers after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill also provided valuable emergency response lesson for OSHA and other federal agencies. We know what we have to do, and we know that we can expect to experience many more, and more frequent extreme weather events in the future. There is no excuse to not be prepared to protect the workers that help rebuild peoples homes — and their lives — after a disaster.
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