Coalition Working to Benefit Construction Workers

Coalition Working to Benefit Construction Workers

If they build it, well, let’s fact it, someone has to build it, and what is often a thankless job, construction work is some of the toughest and most grueling work around.

Sure, it can pay well, but it can be temporary, and according to an alarming 2009 study from the University of Texas, construction in Texas is one of the most dangerous jobs in the state. In fact, according to Emily Timm, policy analyst with the Workers Defense Project, the state of Texas led the country in construction deaths with 138, easily outdistancing California, which had the second highest number of construction worker fatalities with 74.

The reality in the Texas construction world is that for a long time, there was nobody that was looking out for the construction worker who many times goes without health insurance and workman’s compensation benefits. Not to mention a better workplace environment, including safety training that would help limit the number of workplace accidents.

That is all starting to change thanks to the Build a Better Texas coalition, a group comprised of construction businesses, taxpayers, construction workers and faith leaders among others determined to make the construction industry a safer and more equitable place to work.

“We want to set a standard for there to be safe working conditions across the industry,” said Timm, who handles coordinating events for the Build a Better Texas coalition.

The Build a Better Texas coalition, which is based out of Austin, has only been around for the better part of a year, but its roots are pure thanks to the Workers Defense Project, which has been a major contributor in getting the coalition off the ground. Initially the Workers Defense Project helped construction workers recoup unpaid wages, but as time wore on, the folks at the Project started to hear of how unsafe a lot of job sites were and the staggering number of injuries that were occurring as a result of the perilous conditions.

Then came the study from the University of Texas in 2009 that confirmed what many in the construction industry already suspected, especially those at the Workers Defense Project, that 64 percent of construction workers didn’t have OSHA safety training, which is a major deterrent to workplace injuries. Add to that some 55 percent of construction workers who are not covered under workman’s compensation benefits, and that’s a recipe for high injuries followed by costly hospital visits and taxpayers often times left footing the bill when the visit’s over.

But the Build a Better Texas coalition is starting to gain some traction, especially in Austin, and the group has its sights set on making an impact throughout the rest of the state. For instance, according to both Timm and Philip Lawhon, who is with Local Electricians’ Union 520 in Austin but also goes around the state and country raising awareness and spreading the word about the Build a Better Texas movement, the coalition helped establish an ordinance in the city that now stipulates mandatory 15 minute breaks every four hours at job sites. The group is also working on creating a similar mandate that would stipulate rest breaks on all job sites on state projects. That is something they’re working on in the state house and senate.

Timm also said the group is trying to make it a requirement that construction companies provide workman’s compensation to its employees.

And as the coalition increases its footprint in the state and continues to rally for construction workers, the Build a Better Texas group is looking to establish local chapters throughout the state.

“We want to have a part of the coalition in each major city across Texas,” said Lawhon, who noted that the coalition has groups forming in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, El Paso and Fort Worth with places like Beaumont, led by Todd Edgerly, just getting started. “We want to address the issues we’re working on at a local level as we continue to gain respect state-wide.”

Lawhon said the coalition continues to work everyday to get the message of Build a Better Texas out, and Timm added that its going to take educating the public to help them understand the importance of construction safety and the financial impact that construction worker injuries can have on not just the worker who gets injured, but the financial ripple that is felt throughout the area.

For Lawhon and Timm, as well as for Edgerly, who looks to get the Beaumont chapter going soon, 2011 looks to be a momentous year for Building a Better Texas.

“We’re trying to have functioning chapters throughout the state, and to a certain extent, we’re already doing that,” said Lawhon, “but they’re nowhere near as strong as we are here in Austin. But we’re getting things together, we’re getting people on board, and we’re moving forward so things can start happening.”