Ariz.’s Construction Industry Sees Surge in Injuries to Latinos

February 19, 2007

Arizona’s booming population and a surge in construction activity has led to an outsized increase in the number of Hispanic workers injured or killed in the workplace, with more than one-quarter of the injuries occuring in the construction industry, a newspaper analysis found.

Between 2003 and 2005, the number of Hispanics injured on the job in Arizona surged by 59 percent, from 5,510 to 8,760, outpacing the 21 percent overall injury increase, the review by The Arizona Republic found. Deaths among Hispanic workers more than doubled, from 17 in 2003 to 36 in 2005, while overall workplace deaths grew just 23 percent, from 80 to 99.

The increase has left employers who face higher workers’ compensation costs scrambling for answers. It also has left injured workers, many immigrants from Latin America, with a shattered future.
Workers and some companies put the blame on the push to increase productivity in a booming housing market.

“In the (Phoenix area), there were times when construction companies were trying to build 60,000 homes per year with a labor source that could build about 30,000,” said Rick Lake, district manager for Empire Communities, an Ontario, Calif.-based builder with projects in Arizona. “Everybody was just trying to scramble to get homes built, and I think when they concentrate on that so much, training is secondary.”

Empire has a workplace safety program and procedures for the subcontractors it hires. But not every firm has such a policy.
“Arizona-wide, I would (rate safety) at about a six on a 10-point scale, but it varies from company to company,” Lake said.
For companies tempted to cut corners, the chances of being caught are fairly slim.

The Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health has 24 safety and health inspector positions to monitor roughly 2.1 million workers employed by 130,000 companies. At any given time, about 25 percent of the inspector posts are vacant.

That’s led to a decline in the number of investigations, which fell to 1,440 in 2005 from 1,967 the previous year.

There are not enough inspectors “to go around and really try to monitor this type of stuff. The burden really is on us,” said Charlie Thompson, chief financial officer of L & R Guzman Corp. in Tempe.
The company specializes in framing homes. About 80 percent of its workers are Hispanic and employment can swell to 1,200 framers during the summer.

SCF Arizona, the state’s largest workers’ compensation insurance carrier, has seen injury claims for workers in all industries jump from 56,000 in 2005 to 65,000 in 2006, largely because of the population increase and jump in the number of jobs where injuries are common, said spokesman Rick DeGraw.

“Hispanics probably have the highest injury rate in more dangerous jobs of any other ethic group,” DeGraw said. His company has launched a media campaign to educate them on safety.

“Many of them are newer workers,” DeGraw said. “Newer workers usually have higher injury rates than older workers. Many of them are given the jobs that other people don’t want, whether it’s the trench job or the crawling-under-the-house job or the climbing-a-really-tall-ladder job.”

For workers, many of whom are undocumented, injuries can shatter more than bones.

Valente Cruz, a 21-year-old roofer who came to the U.S. from Guatemala, broke his legs when he fell two stories while trying to secure his safety harness in December.

Although he receives workers’ compensation, he’s ready to give up his dream of making it in America and instead will likely return home, where he has a wife and two children.

Instead of making $13 an hour, he’ll likely earn about $3.50 a day.
“When we arrive in the U.S., (we want to) work and progress,” Cruz said as he lay in bed in a cramped Phoenix apartment, his legs in casts. “Now I know it’s not going to be like that.”
Information from: The Arizona Republic,

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