Construction Worker Deaths Spike

"Our hearts go out to the family of the deceased concrete worker, and our prayers are with the injured workers," said Mary Costello, company spokesman.

What is most startling in these accidents is the disproportionate number of immigrant deaths -- and not only in New York, where illegal workers make up 86 percent of all fatalities.

While urban areas are facing a building boom, more rural areas are feeling the effects of a slowing economy, according to construction experts. Unions and employers say they face increased competition from those who hire cheap, illegal immigrants.

"Having a union is first and foremost a defense mechanism in terms of protecting safety," Shufro said. "There is no way an individual worker can stand up to a foreman and say his job is dangerous and he won't do it. He would be fired immediately. Even if you say they violated the law and will call OSHA to fight it, you're gone. You're fired. And the chances of getting your job back are nil."

For immigrants who fear disclosure and deportation, it's even harder to speak up.

Troy Rosasco, a New York City lawyer who represents immigrants in injury cases, said hiring immigrants is "simply a fact of greed."

"Immigrants are asked to do things that legal residents would never do -- getting on a roof without safety harnesses, without proper shoes, without proper guards around scaffolding," he said. "It's an economic choice. 'If you don't do it,' they tell them, 'I've got 10 others like you.'"

One 30-year-old undocumented immigrant was given hasty instructions from his boss to rip up a floor while another worker was above, tearing down a wall, according to Rosasco, who is fighting to get the man compensation. The wall came crashing down on top of him, fracturing his leg and left hip.

Now, riddled with surgical pins and rods, the immigrant is seeking worker's compensation, but his boss won't pay him because he has been handling his wages "off the books," not reporting it to either the IRS or his insurance company.

"They have no training, except what they get on the job," said Rosasco. "What frequently happens is the boss gives instructions in a broken-English conversation, the employer picks up a sledge hammer to demonstrate and then the boss goes out for coffee."

Illegal workers make up about 5 percent of the total American work force, but 14 percent of the construction industry, according to 2005 statistics from the Pew Hispanic Center.

Laborers International Union of America reports that union employees make more than twice in wages what nonunion workers make.

"Unsafe sites are absolutely driven by lower wages paid to illegal workers without benefits that are negotiated with trade unions," Rosasco said. "It's a horribly regulated industry."

Indeed, in New York City, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors can get to only about five of hundreds of construction sites a day, according to Shufro of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health.

He served on a mayor's task force that increased staff and fines and stopped work where violations were found. Its focus was primarily pedestrian safety, which is not regulated by OSHA, but increased worker safety was a byproduct.

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