We write a lot about accidents at Grossman Law--not just vehicular crashes, but all kinds. Though I wish I weren't able to say this, there's never a shortage of tragedies to report: Product malfunctions, commercial trucking crashes, and workplace injuries happen daily across our nation. Even though our attorneys generally keep the closest eye on our home state of Texas, that's still 268,581 square miles of space to watch. Through this observation, the firm has realized some areas of the state seem to attract particular kinds of trouble.
For instance, the staff at Grossman Law Offices read reports over the summer about a construction site accident in College Station, near Texas A&M campus. As we further researched the incident, they ran across several other job site-related injuries that occurred in that area over the past few years. Nothing about these scenarios suggested any major indictment of the university itself, but so many accidents revolving around Texas A&M construction projects got our work injury attorneys thinking about job site safety and what can be done about job site injuries.
A Rundown of Reported Incidents, 2013-2016
While the most infamous accident in A&M's annals is of course the Aggie Bonfire Tragedy of 1999, other incidents have caused injury and death in the last few years as the campus continues to expand. In examining the school's recent history, we found reports of half a dozen serious construction accidents either on TAMU property or operating in its interests, which we've lined up starting with the most recent:
- June 16, 2016 - An equipment malfunction at a job site on A&M property knocked a worker off the machine he was operating for the contractor Brazos Paving. The worker fell a moderate distance into a dirt pit and suffered injuries. Emergency responders took him to the hospital, where his condition was reported stabilized.
- May 13, 2016 - A wayward pipe at a site near the Texas A&M Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Small Animal expansion project struck a worker and knocked him into an excavated trench, which was roughly ten feet deep at the time of the accident. Emergency personnel required special equipment to rescue the worker (though he was reportedly not trapped), and he was taken to the hospital for injuries to his face and head.
- January 21, 2014 - Two construction workers from Dallas fell from the scaffolding of a building development they were working on University Drive, near the Texas A&M Campus. The two went to the hospital for non-life-threatening injuries. They were identified as employees of a subcontractor to Construction Enterprises, Inc.
- December 3, 2013-- Angel Garcia, 25, an employee of Lindamood Demolition (a subcontractor of Manhattan-Vaughan Construction JVP, the company in charge of the project) fell four stories at a construction site during the renovation effort at A&M's Kyle Field, which was meant to increase the football stadium's seating capacity. Garcia was taken to a local hospital but later died of his injuries. His family filed a wrongful death lawsuit later that year, and in early 2016 a jury awarded them $53 million.
Workers from separate companies suffered different accidents on entirely separate occasions. Far from shouting "conspiracy," I'd say Texas A&M isn't necessarily any kind of culprit in these situations. The school isn't automatically responsible for the oversight of the companies they hired for construction projects. They just build and expand their facilities a lot in an effort to accommodate their growing and changing academic landscape. That's a sign of nothing more than prosperity and progress. It just appears that the companies who keep offering the right bid to get these expansion contracts happen to have safety issues.
When companies don't do a good job safeguarding their people, injuries follow. There's simply too many ways for something to go wrong on a job site for any laxity in safety measures. Equipment has to be inspected and kept running, worker gear like harnesses and helmets needs to be kept in operative condition, and all of this needs to be routinely audited. The federal agency responsible for the oversight of corporate safety measures is called the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration, or OSHA.
OSHA and the Burden of Safety
A branch of the U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA keeps an eye on worker safety on job sites. The administration divides the United States into ten regions, each overseen by an OSHA regional office. Texas is in Region 6, which also encompasses Oklahoma, Louisiana, and New Mexico. Region 6 is monitored out of a central office in Dallas.
According to OSHA statistics, one in every ten construction workers is injured each year. Fall safety standards are the most violated OSHA regulations, and fall injuries count for the significant majority of reported job site incidents. Many accidents also occur when the available equipment malfunctions or is defective. Constant use and adverse site/weather conditions can cause significant damage to construction machinery. Because this is well-known, employers are expected to regularly inspect and maintain all equipment to ensure worker safety. This can be costly and time-consuming, and there are many recorded instances of companies' attempts to "cut corners," sacrificing safety for efficiency and profit.
Given the breadth and gravity of its duties, OSHA itself is a comparatively small agency of approximately 2,200 inspectors. Given its directive to oversee the safety of approximately 130 million workers at over 8 million separate job sites, this leaves each agent theoretically responsible for the safety of roughly 59,000 workers.
Because of the weight of those obligations, it is conceivable that not every OSHA investigation is conducted as thoroughly as it could be if resources were not quite so scarce. In many instances, an independent third-party investigation is a good idea in order to gain more accurate insight into the specifics of an injury.
The Value of Independent Investigations
OSHA can't be everywhere, and even when they catch violations, their results don't automatically guarantee compensation to injured employees. The information they gather can be useful in pursuing damages, but they aren't themselves immediate and unquestioned grounds for settlement. Injured workers need legal representation.
Once contracted, a good work injury attorney will launch an independent investigation. In workplace injury claims, this step is vital. I wouldn't say it's universal by any means, but it's very possible for supervisors or company officials to
bribe or threaten encourage employees to adopt a particular story with agreed-upon details that reflect positively on the company itself, helping it avoid liability. Should workers deviate from the story, they run the risk of losing their jobs.
The firm actually experienced a very powerful example of this behavior within the last couple of years. Our client had suffered a fatal job-site accident, and his family called us seeking justice. Their loved one had suffered a mysterious 60-foot plummet from a platform on a hydraulic lift. OSHA investigated and learned that the worker was wearing a safety harness when he fell; based on this information, they determined that the harness must have been faulty. They closed the book on the employer without deeper inquiry, and superficially it appeared they had made the right call.
After being made aware of the case, the work injury attorneys at Grossman Law Offices were unsatisfied with OSHA's conclusion. During the course of our own independent investigation, our injury attorneys found out the owner of the construction firm got in a fist-fight with the lift operator, while the victim was in the air. During the fight, the pair hit a lever that dropped him from his 60-foot perch, and he came plummeting down. As he lay dying, the owner and a foreman realized he wasn't wearing a safety harness. They knew if OSHA found out, they would be fined.
Here's where things shoot straight into Crazytown: Rather than help the badly injured worker (still breathing but severely hurt), they drove for half an hour to the nearest town and bought a safety harness at a pawn shop. They came back and put the harness on the worker ex post facto, but he had died of his injuries while they sought a way to cover their tracks.
The work injury attorneys also found a worker who was at the site when all this went down. Unlike his peers, he couldn't bring himself to say the "party line" about the faulty harness. After learning what he was expected to do in the wake of this tragedy, he walked off the site and never went back, and was therefore unavailable for interview by the OSHA representatives. Our investigators found him when they went deeper into the employee registry; he told them about the fight and pointed them in the direction of the pawn shop. Thanks to his help, the firm's investigation uncovered a receipt for the purchase of the safety harness. The time-stamp on the receipt showed that it was bought after the accident took place.
Again, it's not a foregone conclusion that a company and its employees will lie to save face. The above is an extreme, but very true, example of what people can do when it's time to take responsibility. The value of a thorough and methodical investigation cannot be overestimated, and while they do what they can, OSHA is pressed for time and resources and can sometimes miss the details while surveying the big picture.
Pursuing Justice for Workplace Accidents
In most of the U.S., Workers' Compensation insurance is an established program wherein companies foot a significant percentage of the cost when an employee is injured on the job. In Texas, however, employers have the unique distinction of opting out of the program if they so choose.
Contractors more often than not will enroll in the Workers' Compensation program because insurance is a helpful precaution in jobs where the threat of injury is so common. Construction's a rough job and fraught with a number of dangers, as the repeated examples in College Station demonstrate. However, it's within a Texas company's rights to forego the program.
If a Texas employer chooses not to participate in Workers' Comp, a plaintiff is left with few options but to seek damages through civil litigation. Hiring a knowledgeable work accident attorney is critical, because the plaintiff will need to demonstrate that the employer was responsible for the suffered injury. As I noted above, independent investigations will often reveal information that was not actively sought by government employees. OSHA is not at the job site to advocate for injured parties; their goal is to evaluate and log safety violations. That's it. In the event that such violations are found, OSHA will fine the company, but it doesn't pay any of the received money to the injured parties. That will fall either to Workers' Comp or personal injury litigation.
What We Can Learn from the A&M Accidents
Six instances might not seem like a lot in three years, but a) Keep in mind that these are only the number for a relatively small and dense area, and b) That number is more significant than it might seem at first blush.
All of these instances happened at different sites to employees of different companies. Considering the dense concentration of the accidents, this could be construed as evidence of a more widespread problem. Many contractors choose to forego safety concerns in favor of perceived efficiency. Run the machines just to the edge of burning out their motors. Sweeten the deal for workers with overtime hours, and have them labor until they're ready to drop. Don't have a piece of important safety equipment, like a harness? "Send him on up there anyway, we're on a deadline."
This is a dangerous and foolhardy way to do business. Safety should always be a prime concern in any workplace, particularly one as hazardous as a construction site. If we view the A&M accidents as a sign of bigger issues of job-site safety, these incidents become more serious. Indeed, in a few of these cited cases, juries have agreed that the companies were negligent in their safety precautions.
We also shouldn't let A&M entirely off the hook. We are long past the day when an organization can just take the lowest bidder for a project, without looking into their qualifications and safety record. We don't know how much of a role this plays in A&M's bidding process, but safety should be a major consideration. While many companies and organizations try to avoid liability by hiring contractors, they still have an obligation to do so in a responsible manner.
Many opponents of lawsuits suggest that they are unnecessary because the free market will ultimately punish unsafe employers. This supposes that those hiring the unsafe contractors give a hoot about the safety of the contractors' workers. Sadly, we haven't yet seen any other outlet correlating these injuries together and calling A&M's bidding processes into question.
We can certainly acknowledge that without knowing the number of projects or the number of workers involved, there is simply no reference point to evaluate if the number of workers injured doing construction work on behalf of Texas A&M is abnormally high. It's also quite likely that a work injury is more likely to be reported in the news if it happens on a college construction site versus a random apartment complex in one of Texas' major cities. That being said, when 10 people are killed or injured over a 3 year period, it certainly raises questions.
Ultimately, the message is the same as it so often is in cases of negligence: You were supposed to know better and you didn't act right. Employers are obligated to ensure the safety of their workers, and there is no argument for profitability that cancels out this requirement. Many employers weigh the cost of maintaining their equipment, fleet, or other assets versus the occasional cost of a fine from OSHA, and the math lands in favor of the federal wrist-slap. In these instances they must learn their lesson through the legal system, when injured parties and their grieving families seek justice. Grossman Law is dedicated to ensuring that they receive it.