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Construction workers, immigrants among 62 worker deaths in 2021, new report shows

Based on a new report about workplace fatalities detailing the state’s most hazardous jobs, construction workers worked in the most dangerous industry in the state.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Two men killed at a downtown Boston construction site last year were risking their lives on many fronts, according to a new report about workplace fatalities detailing the state’s most perilous jobs and the workers who do them.

Jordy Alexander Castaneda Romero and Juan Carlos Figueroa Gutierrez, who were hit by a dump truck and knocked into a nine-foot-deep trench on High Street, worked in the most dangerous industry in the state, which in 2021 once again accounted for the largest share of fatal workplace injuries in the state, according to the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health and the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. Like all 15 construction workers killed on the job last year, they worked for a nonunion employer, which research has shown to be significantly less safe than union companies.

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They were also men, who are far more likely to die at work, and immigrants, who made up nearly a third of deadly occupational injuries in the state last year, more than double the share who lost their lives at work in 2020 and 2019.

And they were involved in a transportation-related accident, the leading cause of fatal on-the-job accidents last year.

In all, 62 workers died on the job in 2021, according to the annual “Dying for Work” report, released Wednesday. Fatal injuries accounted for 52 deaths, and 10 firefighters died from work-related diseases. This is up from 45 fatalities in 2020, when many workplaces were shut down during the early months of the pandemic, leading to fewer occupational deaths, but down from each of the three years before that.

The death rate last year — 1.8 per 100,000 workers — was similar to what it was in 2019 and 2018. That means that even though there were fewer workers out on job sites as many people continued working from home, the many immigrants and people of color who worked on the front lines throughout the pandemic represented a greater proportion of those likely to get hurt, said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of MassCOSH. At the same time, employers anxious to make a profit after pandemic-induced interruptions were cutting corners on safety measures, she said.

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The deaths of Romero, 27, and Gutierrez, 33, who each left behind a wife and two children, are “symbolic of all the risks that we talk about that immigrant workers face all the time,” Sugerman-Brozan said. “Sadly, it’s also symbolic of employers who don’t care about the health and safety of their workers.”

The two men’s deaths were also included in a report released Wednesday by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, which puts out an annual “Dirty Dozen” list of employers that egregiously expose workers to preventable hazards. Both the national and state COSH reports call out violations by their employer, Atlantic Coast Utilities in Wayland, whose owner was indicted for perjury in November for lying about past safety violations to obtain a Boston construction permit. An OSHA investigation found that the company had failed to conduct worksite inspections to address hazards, including the risk of being hit by construction vehicles.

In addition to the 62 fatal injuries and firefighter deaths in Massachusetts, fatal overdoses and suicides claimed 38 lives on the job, up more than 50 percent from 2020 and 2019, according to the MassCOSH report. Workers with physically demanding jobs are often prescribed opioids for injuries, the report states, and taking painkillers is “an act of coping, to manage their pain while they worked to put food on the table, and of hope that they could recover from their injury and resume their lives.”

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The construction industry has one of the highest rates of opioid-related overdose deaths in the state, according to a 2021 Massachusetts Department of Public Health study. From 2011-2015 to 2016-2017, the rate of deaths rose 83 percent, to 228.9 deaths per 100,000 workers. Among occupations, construction overdose death rates were six times higher than the average annual rate for all workers. More recent data isn’t available, but based on the record-high number of drug overdose deaths nationwide in 2020 and 2021, the isolation of the pandemic no doubt made everything worse, said Thomas Gunning, executive director of the Building Trades Employers; Association Northeast.

“Construction, you’re out in the elements, you’re out in the weather: warm, cold, hot,” he said. “And you’re doing manual labor all day long, so you’re more prone to injury. And when you get injured, we all go to the doctor. ... A couple years ago, it was opiates all the time ... and we had no idea we would get addicted.”

The association is holding an event Friday in the Seaport District to observe the rise in overdose deaths amid what it calls the “construction drug crisis.” As part of a national “Stand Down,” construction workers from two job sites will pause for a moment of silence.

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MassCOSH is holding a memorial for fallen workers Thursday at noon on the steps of the State House.

Whether it’s due to opioid addiction, a motor vehicle accident, violence, or COVID, job-related deaths fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable workers and are exacerbated by systemic failures such as a lack of job security or paid time off, said Devan Hawkins, an epidemiologist at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences quoted in the MassCOSH report: “They are the symptoms of a system that considers workers solely as a means for increasing profit.”

Workers who died after being exposed to COVID on the job aren’t included in the tally because the state doesn’t accurately track the industries and occupations of people who test positive, the report states. But COVID likely led to many occupational deaths. A 2020 study by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found that residents working outside the home were twice as likely to test positive for COVID compared to those working at home, while workers in hospitals were almost three times more likely, and those in nursing homes and residential care facilities were nearly four times more likely.

And as more people return to in-person work, the risk continues.

“Workers now have nothing: No masking, no distancing, no protections,” Sugerman-Brozan said. “It’s important for folks to recognize that the pandemic is not over and that there are still workers who are being deeply affected.”

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Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.