Baltimore bridge worker deaths highlight dangers of essential jobs

The presumed deaths of six road workers on the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore are shining a spotlight on the risks associated with essential jobs, especially for low-income and immigrant workers.

A construction crew of eight men was on-site early Tuesday on an overnight shift to conduct road surface repairs when the Dali, a nearly 1,000-foot-long container vessel, struck the bridge.

The collapse was so fast the workers had no time to even attempt an evacuation.

“Tragically six people did lose their lives and a seventh was badly injured. These were workers who went out to work on a night shift repairing the road surface while most of us slept,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said at a White House briefing Wednesday.

While the extraordinary circumstances of the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse were unpredictable, road work zones have become more dangerous over the years.

According to the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse, there were 874 fatal crashes in work zones in 2021, up from 780 a year prior and a 10-year low of 536 in 2013.

In 2021, 956 people died in those crashes and 42,000 were injured, even as vehicle miles traveled and highway construction spending remained relatively stagnant compared to previous years.

“Safety is DOT’s top priority, and as we work to get to zero roadway fatalities, that has to include work zones,” a Department of Transportation spokesperson told The Hill.

“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s historic investment in rebuilding our roads, bridges, and highways is putting more workers on jobsites like this one across our country. And as a result, our work through the National Roadway Safety Strategy, and the work of our partners, like [the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials], to make roads, as well as work zones, safer will be more important than ever.”

The infrastructure bill includes $15.6 billion for the Highway Safety Improvement Program, including $5 billion for the Safe Streets and Roads for All Program.

Still, road work is inherently dangerous, as it puts workers in areas vulnerable to accidents involving passing vehicles.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not release specific numbers on road worker fatalities, but associated occupations such as construction, motor vehicle operation and material moving are among the deadliest jobs in the United States, along with farming, fishing and forestry.

In 2022, the death rate per 100,000 workers among all workers in the United States was 3.7. For farming fishing and forestry, it was 23.5 deaths per 100,000 workers, 14.6 per 100,000 for transportation and material moving, and 13 per 100,000 for construction and extraction.

Federal Highway Administration data show that each year between 2003 and 2008, 20,000 workers were injured in road construction zones, and 106 died in 2010.

And BLS data showed that Black and Latino workers also have higher death rates than the all-worker rate — transportation incidents were the highest cause of fatalities in both groups, accounting for the deaths of 278 Black workers and 439 Latino workers in 2022.

Foreign-born Latino workers, like the eight on the Francis Scott Key Bridge, accounted for 792 of the 1,248 fatalities across all occupations, and 316 of the 792 deaths of Hispanic workers in construction.

“This is a reminder of the central role that immigrants play in the frontlines of our economy. We are a hypocritical nation that keeps exploiting immigrants and taking advantage of immigrants, while at the same time welcoming extremist anti-immigrant rhetoric in the nation. And that must stop,” said Héctor Sánchez, president of Mi Familia Vota, a Hispanic political advocacy organization.

Two of the workers, Honduras-born Maynor Suazo Sandoval and El Salvador-born Miguel Luna, were members of CASA, an immigrant advocacy group with deep roots in Maryland.

Others, including from Guatemala and Mexico, have not been identified; Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said early Wednesday that the families of two Mexican men had asked for privacy and did not wish to be publicly identified.

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Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA, on Wednesday said the families of Suazo Sandoval and Luna agreed to disclose their identities, but asked for privacy going forward.

“Maynor and Miguel are just two stories, two specific examples of thousands and thousands of Baltimoreans that are making a contribution to this beautiful country,” Torres said.

“In a time where there is so much hatred against the immigrant community, we look to the quiet leadership of Maynor and Miguel and appreciate how they uphold our society so Americans can be comfortable.”

For advocates, the bridge deaths are a reminder of the whiplash felt by immigrants as public discourse careens from recognition of the social and economic contributions of immigrants to anti-immigrant political rhetoric.

“It’s a part of this schizophrenic nature of allowing someone like [former President] Trump or allowing anti-immigrant rhetoric to fuel our politics that it’s a pendulum. At one point, you know, during the pandemic, we were recognized what we are, which is essential. We helped the country recover from that. And now we’re vilified as people — we’re vilified,” said Greisa Martínez Rosas, executive director of United We Dream, an immigrant youth advocacy organization.

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