Harris County leaders respond to alarming construction death rate

Harris County Commissioners and local labor leaders announced at a press conference Monday that their first action in 2023 will be to address the county’s alarming construction death rate through a worker safety policy for construction businesses.

The safety policy is part of the Build Houston Better coalition to modernize and expand workplace protection for employees and contractors in the county. At a press conference, Paul Puente, executive secretary of the Houston Gulf Coast Building and Construction Council, said the legislation was needed because of the astonishing number of workers who die on the job weekly.

“People get up and go to work and they don’t know if they will come home,” Puente said. “This is important because these are people who are sitting at the table with their families, and this is an empty place.”

For many years, Texas led the nation in occupational deaths, most of which were in the construction industry. City officials say the law will solve workers’ problems. The policy requires all managers and employees who oversee manual labor to be trained in Occupational Safety and Health Management (OSHA). Employers must also pay for training.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said businesses that have demonstrated a “willful disregard” for the safety of their employees will also be temporarily banned from bidding on the county’s construction projects.

“This includes companies that have been convicted of a crime following the death or serious injury of a worker, as well as companies that have been ranked as the worst of the worst in terms of worker safety,” Menefee added.

Construction fatalities are reported every few weeks in the Houston metro area, including falls, slips, vehicle accidents, and more, and can be expected to rise as the need for infrastructure grows in the metropolitan area.

For example, in October, ABC13 reported on a 22-year-old man who was found unconscious while drilling a well at a construction site in the spring. Authorities confirmed that he died at the scene and believed he was killed by a drill bit he was working on.

In the 2021 rankings, Houston was the second most builder city in the US due to high demand for their services.

“These people are more than just a number,” Menefee said. “This is more than just a salary. Their people and they are our neighbors and they are the main driver of economic success in Harris County.”

There were more than 533 fatal workplace injuries in Texas in 2021, most of which were in construction, trading, warehousing, and mining, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We have heard from some workers who have never attended a training course on basic safety issues that can arise on a construction site,” said Linda Morales, organizational director of the Texas Gulf Coast Federation of Labor. “To end the workplace safety crisis, workers must not only be trained to recognize workplace hazards by taking OSHA, but also be confident they can speak without fear of retaliation or retaliation.”

Menefee said the county is taking additional steps to protect all employees, including immigrants. Commissioner Rodney Ellis added that county projects do not ask employees about their immigration status.

Harris County Commissioners vote on worker safety policy Tuesday, January 10 at the first 2023 Commissioners’ meeting. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is still on family leave.

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