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Texas highway expansion comes with a human death toll

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Roz Brown

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(Texas News Service) Texas road construction workers die at a higher rate than in any other state, and some believe it's because contractors aren't held accountable for accidents. 

Over a seven-year period ending in 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 143 deaths at Texas road construction sites. 

Josephine Lee, a reporter with the Texas Observer, investigated last year's death of Juan Simental from a fall while helping build a new toll road. The contractor had been hired by the Texas Department of Transportation or TxDOT. She said Texas is among states that allow private companies to operate under their own safety plan.

"TxDOT kept awarding contracts to the same equity group and its subsidiaries and so, they've made millions from Texas highways, but while they were doing it the injuries kept on racking up," she explained. 

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The AFL-CIO says over the last 50 years, there has been significant progress toward improving working conditions and protecting workers. But now, that progress is challenged as employers' opposition to workers' rights and protections has grown and attacks on unions have intensified.

Texas has more than 50 toll roads, and private contractors are building more. In public-private partnerships, design, construction, operation and maintenance is handed over to the for-profit entity. That also allows private firms to charge drivers high tolls, and many drivers avoid using the pricey roads. 

Transportation activist Terri Hall has been organizing against toll roads since 2001.

"They call them 'privatized' toll roads, but they really are backed by the taxpayer, and when the traffic doesn't show up, it's going to be you and I that take the hit for that, not the company," Hall asserted. "And they've put very little of their own money at risk on these deals."

Lee notes that OSHA is not a preventive agency, and typically only investigates a construction fatality, not injuries. She believes Texas' policy of allowing private companies to report injuries themselves is highly-problematic because they are also concerned about their bottom line. 

"How often is the state going out to investigate? You know, are they keeping their safety records, especially when there are debilitating injuries and hospitalizations and especially deaths?" she asked. 

Following its investigation of Simental's death, OSHA elected not to fine the contractor, and levied only a $5,000 fine against the subcontractor, noting federal safety standards had been violated.