Report Finds Worker Deaths Increased in Nashville Housing Boom

May 9, 2018

An analysis by a Tennessee newspaper has found that a decline in safety inspections and ignored safety rules have led to an increase in worker deaths during Nashville’s housing boom.

Citing state and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration data, The Tennessean reported that 2016 and 2017 was the deadliest two-year stretch for construction workers in Nashville’s metropolitan area in more than 30 years.

Sixteen construction workers died during that time span. That is more than construction worker deaths in areas with a similarly sized workforce or rapid growth, according to the report, published Saturday. Ten of the 16 workers didn’t have harnesses or other federally required safeguards and died from falls, the newspaper said.

Half of the workers were Latino, according to the newspaper, which said untrained laborers from other countries have filled many construction jobs as area tradesmen retire. Many of the immigrant laborers work on single-family residential construction sites where safety plans may be more relaxed than at commercial sites run by large general contractors.

“Frankly, I don’t think they know what the expectation is, that you would wear fall protection, or even a lot of time I don’t think they’re aware that the employers are required to give it to them,” said Steve Hawkins, an administrator at the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

John Eldridge is the CEO of E3 Construction Services, a general contractor that has built hundreds of residences in Nashville during this boom. He said the city’s residential subcontractors are unlikely to follow safety regulations when compared to commercial tradesmen. Eldridge said only hiring subcontractors who strictly follow safety standards would cut back on the number of workers available.

“We are at the mercy of the labor pool we have,” he said.

The Tennessean also found that random construction site inspections by the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration have plummeted. The inspections dipped from 760 in 2008 to only 172 in 2016 when the housing boom started in Nashville. It then doubled in 2017 to 331.

Hawkins said the state branch of the agency has been stretched thin since 2015 when the federal branch required employers to report all amputations, eye loss, and inpatient hospitalizations. The state division initially responded to each report with an in-person inspection. However, Hawkins changed the policy in 2017 to allow supervisors to respond to less-serious injuries with letters. Hawkins said this has freed up two more inspectors for the area.

Low pay and turnover also have strained the agency, but the turnover has since slowed, Hawkins said.

The agency gave all employees a 22 percent raise in 2016. Inspectors now make $57,000.

There have been two construction workers deaths in the Nashville area so far this year.

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