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Jail Time: Paying the Price for Poor Safety Practices

Aug. 19, 2015
The owner of a construction company and his project manager were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to prison following a Latino construction worker's death.

Raul Zapata was buried alive in a trench on his second week on the job. His death offers insight into the plight of many Latino workers who do not receive appropriate training and are not advised of hazards in Spanish.

The owner of a construction company that employed Zapata and his project manager were both found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison after a wall of dirt and rocks collapsed and crushed Zapata, a 39-year-old Mexican construction worker while he was working on construction of a nearly 6,000-square-foot home in Milpitas, Calif.

The accident occurred just three days after Milpitas building inspectors halted construction on the home, which was being built on a steep hillside. Construction of the home was red-tagged out of fear that an unsupported wall would collapse after heavy rains hit the area. That same wall collapsed while Zapata worked in a trench next to it. 

This might be the first time in more than 30 years in California that an owner or managers were convicted of involuntary manslaughter involving the death of an employee on a job site. In 1982, the manager of a Burbank water reclamation plant was convicted of manslaughter after two workers were killed after being exposed to toxic fumes with no respiratory protection.

According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2014, over 39 percent of the population of California is Latino. As the Latino population has grown, so have the number of work-related injuries suffered by Latino workers. Often, Latino workers are working in high-hazard jobs, often without appropriate training in Spanish. Because of a lack of functional English skills, safety talks, safety warnings and precautions that are not presented in Spanish as well just aren't understood.

Hispanics Suffer Higher Rates of Work-Related Deaths

Work-related deaths are higher among Latinos than other demographic segments. A report published on April 15 by the California Department of Industrial Relations and the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) reported that the most dangerous occupations for Latinos were construction, material and equipment transportation, waste services and landscaping. 

Often the top four causes of fatal construction injuries are referred to as the "fatal four." The fatal four include falls, being struck by an object, electrocutions and being caught in between objects. According to the DOSH report, three of the top 1- most frequently cited OSHA standards involved falls or the possibility of falling. 

The report makes recommendations for specialized training in specific dangerous industries and jobs and it also recommends development of appropriate training programs and materials. Latinos are particularly vulnerable when they're unable to read instructions or warnings or speak with a foreman or supervisor because of limited English.

Serious injuries or fatalities can happen at any construction site.  Many Hispanic workers speak and understand English well, but there are many others who don't. Many Hispanic workers, afraid to lose their jobs or threatened with the loss of their jobs, refuse to file an injury claim if they're hurt on the job. They're afraid of retaliation and for them, a single payday can't be missed, let alone months of paydays if they're fired.

All of the numbers aren't in yet for the 2013 year from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but it's highly likely that the numbers will increase.   Across the country, 797 Latinos died from work-related injuries in 2013. Of those, 572 were foreign-born (mostly from Mexico) and many held jobs in high-hazard industries. 

Raul Zapata didn’t get to go home.  He never should have been at work that day; the job was red-tagged for the exact safety violation that killed him. 

The construction company's owner and project manager both blamed the accident on a subcontractor. Both were taken into immediate custody after the verdict was read because of fear that they would flee the country (one was a Chinese citizen and the other maintains strong ties with China).

Zapata's wife and three children are now pursuing a civil action against the owner of the construction company.

About the Author: Joseph Appel is the co-founder of Appel Law Firm LLP in Walnut Creek, Calif. He has helped people in the bay area with their workers compensation and personal injury matters for over 30 years.

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