“Without a voice, on-the-job workers are too often not trained in proper health and safety techniques or are retaliated against when they assert their right to refuse unsafe work.”
In the wake of a trenching accident that resulted in the death of construction worker Raul Zapata in the Milpitas Hills of California, Cindy Chavez of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council and Neil Struthers of the Santa Clara County Building and Trades Council wrote an article, “Death of Construction Worker is a Tragic Lesson,” about Zapata’s life and the need for accountability from his employer.
By all accounts, Raul Zapata was a hardworking father and a loving uncle who took in his young nephews who needed a parental figure. To his family, his tragic death is an incomprehensible loss. To the company he worked for, U.S.-Sino Investment of Fremont, this tragedy is a hard lesson in corporate responsibility.
When a wall of mud came crashing down on Zapata as he worked on the construction of a home in the Milpitas hills, neither he nor his co-workers knew they weren’t supposed to be there. An order by the city of Milpitas had been issued just days before, demanding the construction company stop work until potentially deadly conditions could be inspected for safety. Apparently, that order was ignored and now the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration has determined the developer did not have the proper permit to dig a trench that size. Another investigation should come from the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office for possible criminal charges.
It’s no secret that homebuilders often employ nonunion workers. The workforce is small, the work is short-term, and it’s difficult to organize workers under those conditions. But the potentially dangerous reality is that there is little incentive for those employers to uphold safety standards that organized labor demands for the protection of its members. In this case, it is likely Zapata was not working under the protection and training of an organized union. Without a voice, on-the-job workers are too often not trained in proper health and safety techniques or are retaliated against when they assert their right to refuse unsafe work. Union employers, together with their employees, understand the critical role that empowered workers can play in keeping a job site safe and cost effective. More must be done to strengthen the rules to protect workers on job sites, including strong penalties for employers who break the rules and put their workers at risk.
In the case of Zapata, where his employer ostensibly ignored the law, it could have meant the difference between life and death. According to the State Compensation Insurance Fund, there are 500 injuries and 100 deaths every year from trenching cave-ins. There’s no excuse for contractors not to follow regulations and safety orders. We need a strong Cal/OSHA program, able to enforce existing rules and save lives.
As the legal process moves forward, Chavez and Struthers stress the need for accountability:
The California Penal Code lays out the law very clearly. Criminal negligence means you knew better but chose to ignore that knowledge, recklessly putting another person at risk of injury or death. We want people to feel confident that when they say goodbye to a loved one at the start of a workday their loved one will come home safely. That is a right of every worker and every family in every neighborhood.
The labor community mourns the death of Zapata and demands that employers be held accountable for obeying the laws that protect their workers. And if they don’t obey them, there must be strong consequences. Working in that trench certainly had deadly consequences for Zapata.