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The dangerous invisibility of America’s construction workers

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Orange is a color that is hard not to notice, and yet, every day, people in the Washington area pass by it without much thought.

Orange cones. Orange vests. Orange signs that plead with drivers to slow down. Those often go unseen or disregarded in a region where construction sites have become as much a part of the landscape as cherry trees and monuments.

We are an area filled with Tyvek-wrapped homes, crane-dotted horizons and closed traffic lanes. That people have learned to look past those work sites is understandable.

But that invisibility is killing construction workers, and not just in ways that are obvious.

On Wednesday, six construction workers were killed on a Maryland highway after the driver of an Acura collided with another car and the force of the crash sent the Acura tumbling through a construction site. A video of the I-695 incident, recorded by a Maryland Department of Transportation traffic camera, shows the Acura barreling through a gap in a makeshift wall of concrete barriers that was supposed to protect the workers. To watch that video is to understand that no one standing in the direct pathway of that car could have survived.

Among the workers whose lives ended that day were two brothers: Carlos Orlando Villatoro Escobar, 43, and Jose Armando Escobar, 52. Also killed were Rolando Ruiz and Sybil Lee DiMaggio, both 46, and a father and son — 52-year-old Mahlon Simmons II and Mahlon Simmons III, 31.

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6 road construction workers die in Maryland when car crashes into them

In an article my colleagues wrote about the incident, DiMaggio’s husband George Durm described the mother of two as loving her job. He also said, “She was terrified of this job site.”

Maritza Guzman de Villatoro, who lost her brother-in-law and her husband and is now left to raise three children on her own, told my colleagues through tears that drivers need to be more careful. “Innocent people pay later for their mistakes,” she said.

The deaths drew national coverage — deservedly so. What happened was heartbreaking. But it was also not surprising to those who have been paying attention to the construction industry and the toll that goes unseen by much of the public.

“Fatalities in work zones are all too common,” J.R. Glascock, director of Quality, Health, Safety and Environmental for The Lane Construction Corporation, said Friday. Glascock works out of the company’s Virginia office and is responsible for the company’s overall safety program, including road and highway construction projects similar to the one that was taking place in Maryland.

“Hard-working men and women from the industry are out there each day building infrastructure projects to increase safety and keep America moving,” he said. “While on these job sites, the risks these workers face are real. Workers are sometimes inches away from vehicular traffic. Many motorists passing through work zones are speeding, distracted, or sometimes even under the influence of alcohol or drugs. A split second of unsafe driving can take a life, or even lives, and can impact so many others.”

I asked him what he wanted drivers who pass by work sites across the country every day to know.

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“While we are out there, please remember that we have families that are counting on us to come home at night, too,” he said. “Construction workers have mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children and grandchildren who are counting on us to make a living, provide for our families and come home safe and sound.”

A page created to allow people to sign up to bring meals to Villatoro Escobar’s family, or contribute donations, described him as “the sole provider for his family.” It noted that any type of meal was appreciated and that his girls love fruit.

A grieving father retraces his wife’s last route — then goes further

I have written previously about the need for more road safety measures in the region. When writing those columns, I admittedly didn’t give much thought to construction sites. Like many of you, I have walked by them and driven by them without considering all that has to go right for those projects to get completed without casualties. I have done that even though I have relatives and friends who have worked in construction jobs.

But since Wednesday’s crash, I have taken a closer look at the industry. I have examined reports, talked to experts and read through past headlines. And what I’ve learned is this: A lot of smart people have long been studying how to make the industry safer and begging for the public to pay attention.

“A lot of times on work zone sites, when workers die, it’s one by one,” Chris Cain said. “It doesn’t garner much attention, but it happens almost every day, or many, many days in the year.”

Cain is the executive director of the Center for Construction Research and Training, or CPWR, a Maryland-based nonprofit that is dedicated to reducing occupational injuries, illnesses and fatalities in the construction industry. She has spent nearly 30 years focused on how to make the construction industry safer.

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This month, her organization published a data bulletin that opens with this sentence: “Construction is one of the most dangerous industries in the United States, with 1,034 fatal occupational injuries among all construction workers and 74,520 nonfatal injuries among private wage-and-salary construction workers in 2020.”

Cain expressed concern that work-zone crashes have been occurring more frequently. Her organization found they increased by 18 percent between 2011 and 2020. But she also noted that workers aren’t only losing their lives in “struck by” incidents, which can involve getting struck by vehicles, falling objects or construction equipment. She said they are also dying at disproportionate rates by suicide and drug overdoses.

She pleaded for a bridge suicide barrier. Then another life was lost.

“If we could have awareness of issues facing construction workers more in the common dialogue, I think that would be very helpful,” Cain said.

Her organization is helping to organize the “National Stand-Down to Prevent Struck-by Incidents,” which starts April 17 and is being held in conjunction with the National Work Zone Awareness Week.

There is a lot of official language to describe those events. But what they come down to is this: Those who know too well the deadly risks construction workers face every day want people to spend that time noticing those orange cones, those orange vests and those orange “slow” signs and considering the lives behind them.

Source: Washington Post

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