When it started to rain Monday afternoon, construction workers in West Dallas decided to pack up and leave.
Then, the three-story townhome they were working on collapsed. Five people were taken to the hospital. "I'm thanking God that I'm still alive, man," one worker said afterward to WFAA's Matt Howerton.
But one man, Raul Ortega-Cabrera, became another of the dozens of people who have died from a workplace injury in Dallas-Fort Worth over the last couple of years.
According to an analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration department data, 52 people died on the job in North Texas from Jan. 1, 2017 to Sept. 24 this year. A good chunk of that figure worked in some form of the construction industry.
The accidents range from a worker falling 50 feet through a skylight in Celina to a worker dying from heat exhaustion after roofing in 100-degree weather.
There are several reasons why the construction industry is more dangerous than other labor-intensive industries like working at great heights — falls are a major cause of workplace injuries — and workers exposed to the cold, heat, wind and other elements that an employee in a manufacturing plant, for example, wouldn't have to deal with.
But another big reason is construction workers don't spend a lot of time in one area. An employee might spend just six months on a job before moving to another site where they have to relearn a new environment all over again.
SangHyun Lee, an associate professor who studies the construction industry at the University of Michigan's Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, said an in-depth understanding of how construction employees work on the job will improve safety.
"We need to understand how these people start and adjust themselves to new job site environments," Lee said. "Also, we need to think about the way we are building. With the advancement of technologies, we need to adopt more prefabrication and modularization which can reduce on-site work."
Since the construction industry is so closely tied with the overall economy, there are more deaths when the economy is doing well and fewer during a recession. For example, Lee said there were 1,204 deaths in the U.S. construction industry in 2007, but that figure fell to 35 percent to 774 in 2010 after the recession halted thousands of projects.
But Lee added there is reason to be optimistic about safety improvements. A key metric used to determine the safety of the industry is Total Recordable Incident Rate, which better accounts for rises and drops in industry activity. TRIR has declined since the start of the century, sometimes steadily and sometimes slowly, as 2016's rate was half that of 2003's.
OSHA lists how much each employer was fined for a workplace death. For example, an employee who died in Dallas after falling 54 feet when waterproofing a balcony under construction resulted in an initial penalty of $34,224 for their employer, listed as Chamberlin Dallas LLC in Dallas. The current penalty was reduced to $12,675, according to OSHA.
For workplace injuries, most, if not all, construction firms have workers compensation coverage in place because the project owner requires it, said Dale Sharpe-Jenkins, a lecturer in the University of North Texas' College of Business Risk Management and Insurance Program and owner of Jenkins Agency Inc. in Arlington.
"Texas is one of the few states in the country that does not have workers' comp as a requirement for all businesses," Sharpe-Jenkins said. "But even without it being a legal mandate with employers, you'd be hard-pressed to find construction firms that are actually hiring employees that don't have workers' comp in place."
To read the rest of this story on DallasBusinessJournal.com and to view accompanying infographics, click here.
Note: Ashley Nerbovig, special to the Business Journals, contributed to this report.