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,
- Second responders are not receiving the training they need to protect themselves from hazards during post-disaster recovery. Eighty-five percent of day laborers who have worked in hurricane-affected areas report that they have not received any training for the worksites they are entering. Similarly, 87 percent have not been informed about risks related to unsafe buildings, 85 percent have not been informed about risks related to mold, 85 percent have not been informed of risks of working in contaminated water, and 83 percent have not received training for working around fallen trees or electrical lines.
- Most day laborers do not have the personal protective equipment they need. Nearly one-third (32%) do not have work gloves, 40 percent do not have protective eyewear, 41 percent do not have steel-toed boots, 61 percent do not have a respirator, and 64 percent do not have a hard hat.
- More than one-third (34%) of workers reported having been injured while employed as a day laborer in Houston. Most injuries were related to puncture wounds, ergonomic hazards, falls and broken bones. In addition, twenty-seven percent report difficulty breathing, 28 percent skin rashes and swelling, 35 percent report recurring headaches, and 40 percent report watery eyes or eye infection. Of those who suffered an injury, 67 percent indicated that the workplace was unsafe, 63 percent said that the injury was due to lack of protective equipment, and 52 percent said that they were injured due to pressure to work faster.
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:
- Develop Worker Centers as “Disaster Recovery Hubs” so that day labor worker centers, labor unions, and other organizations that directly engage informally employed workers are prepared to equip second responders with personal protective equipment and provide health and safety training.
- Suspend Immigration Enforcement within the disaster zone so that undocumented workers will feel free to report employment violations, access emergency services, and seek medical care. And recovery operations continue for years. Immigration protections should be extended beyond the immediate emergency period
- Provide increased budgets and dedicated investigators for local agencies that who visit informal hiring sites and worksites where day laborers are employed.
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.
Guillermo Miranda Vazquez starts his day in a parking lot near the Home Depot where he easily finds work alongside other day laborers who are cleaning up Houston after Hurricane Harvey.
Some days, he clears rotted drywall and hauls out furniture and carpet destroyed by Harvey’s floodwaters. Other days, he chops fallen trees or helps to lay the foundations for new homes. He ventures daily into homes wearing a T-shirt, work pants and tennis shoes, often while surrounded by the pungent stench and raw sewage that flowed into homes during the flooding.
“I always wash and scrub myself, and I use alcohol or something similar so that I don’t get infected,” said Miranda, a native of Guatemala. “I haven’t gotten sick yet.”
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.
In addition to being exposed to mold and chemicals as well as experiencing wage theft, undocumented workers have already suffered from the devastation of the storm in unique ways due to poverty, lack of insurance, and their undocumented status. There are some 600,000 undocumented immigrants in Houston. After the hurricane, many undocumented people were afraid to use local shelters because of their immigration status or didn’t want to leave homes because they were concerned about protecting property. Although local and federal officials have tried to persuade undocumented people that they are not there to enforce immigration laws, undocumented people are still worried about the risk of seeking help.
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:
- If federal agencies like OSHA can expect to see devastating natural disaster on a regular basis, provisions need to be made for a permanent emergency fund that the agency can draw on to ramp up worker protection activities after a disaster without seriously impacting the annual budget.
- More training money should be made available under the Susan Harwood Training Grant program to ensure that worker centers, unions and other non-profit in hurricane-prone areas have been able to train large numbers of day laborers before disaster strikes. And provision should be made for emergency supplemental grant funding to provide training for long periods after the disaster hits.
- Federal OSHA needs to work more closely with FEMA and local emergency response authorities to pre-coordinate actions to protect workers during recovery operations and arrange for local authorities to make referrals to federal or state OSHAs when unsafe conditions are observed.
- Personal Protective Equipment needs to be purchased and pre-positioned so that workers have access to it as soon a recovery operations begin. As the NDLON report notes, ” recovery work begins right away, even as neighborhoods remain under water, power has yet to be fully restored, and health and safety hazards abound.”
- In addition to suspending immigration enforcement, efforts should be made to inform undocumented workers that OSHA will enforce safe working conditions regardless of a worker’s immigration status.
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.