ALFREDO ALVAREZ'S LAST WORDS were, “Help me, I'm going to die. Talk to my family.”

At the time, Alvarez was an employee of T.C. Construction Co., a San Diego–based general contracting firm that was doing waterline tie-ins for Brookfield Homes' Windingwalk Community in Chula Vista, Calif. Alvarez, a pipe layer with about a year of experience, was doing cleanup work in a ditch. His best friend, Ernesto Ramon Torres, was operating a Caterpillar backhoe excavator nearby. Unfortunately, Torres was not formally trained to operate the machine.

“This was everybody's worse nightmare,” says John W. Norman, who at the time was a project manager at Brookfield Homes. Norman now heads the company's land division in Roseville, Calif. “We had stressed safety before the accident, but it comes down to the people in the field.”

According to the accident report by the California division of OSHA, Torres mistakenly put the backhoe in reverse at full throttle, causing the 20,000-pound machine to plunge into the ditch. Alvarez was crushed. T.C. Construction was fined $8,060. (The company did not return calls for comment or to say whether it is contesting the fine.)

It probably would be comforting to some if we could say this accident was an aberration. But there is no comfort in the harsh reality: Hispanic workers are twice as likely to be killed on construction sites as non-Hispanics, says The Center to Protect Workers' Rights.

“The sad commentary is that we have not done a lot of research into this issue,” says Kenneth “Skip” Guarini, owner of Englewood, Colo.–based OMI Safety Services, a consulting firm that helps residential builders evaluate their safety programs. “There is no good data to lean on.” According to government statistics, Hispanics account for 20 percent of the construction workforce, but Guarini says that if you look at residential construction in border states such as California, Texas, and Nevada, that number is probably closer to 90 percent. “I can tell you that we are in the field every day, and we see a far greater number of injured Hispanic workers simply because we are seeing a greater number in the workforce.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and OSHA said recently that the number of accidents among Hispanic workers is falling. According to the agencies, fatal work injuries to Hispanics increased each year from 1995 to 2001, but decreased in 2002 and 2003. In 2003, 791 Hispanic workers in all occupations were fatally injured at work, down 12 percent from the a high of 895 in 2001. This trend also applies to Hispanic workers at construction sites, say industry officials. But Dawn Mata Crane, chairwoman of the Hispanic Contractors Association in Austin, Texas, says this is debatable: “The numbers are down among [U.S.]-born Hispanics, but the numbers for immigrants are staying the same or ... going up.” One reason we cannot rely solely on OSHA's numbers, says Crane, is that the agency tracks only those workers who died on site. Those who died days later in the hospital are not counted.

WORKER WORRIES The home building industry is a complex mix of tiered relationships that includes contractors, subcontractors, and sub-subcontractors. And an injured worker usually has to navigate the morass of finger pointing and the blame game. “If you look at residential builders—any of the big guys—they have virtually no employees involved in the construction of a home,” Guarini says. “So when we are evaluating the safety efforts on a home site, we are really looking at the work of subcontractors. When you look at subcontracting, you may be looking at a sub who also has no employee involved ... and, in fact, may have subbed out the work to another tier. That subcontractor may have gone out and found himself day workers who are not affiliated with anybody.” In such cases, he says, workers are given tools for which they have no training and are seldom issued eye-wear or hard hats. “There is no insurance and no documentation to determine if the worker is legal,” Guarini says. “If he gets hurt, the chance of that injury becoming reportable is in the neighborhood of less than 30 percent.”

This scenario is a major factor in the high fatality rate, and it leads to other problems, says Rich Cunningham, executive director of New Brunswick, N.J.–based New Labor, a nonprofit group that trains and educates Hispanic workers. “The biggest problem is that Latino workers are primarily employed in subcontractor work relationships,” he says. “So it's complicated by the fact that the relationship is indirect, through temporary employment agencies or third-party labor contractors. There is not as much direct association, which lends itself to these problems.”

Compounding the problem further is that OSHAis not set up to do inspections at these types of sites, where the relationship between day laborers and contractors is vague, says Amy Sugimori, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project in New York City. As evidence, Sugimori points to a Government Accountability Office report on the Department of Labor and OSHA. “One of the things [the report] concluded is that OSHA is really structured to understand a certain kind of relationship and look for a certain kind of employer during inspections to figure out who is responsible if somebody gets hurt,” she says. “But because of multiple-layered subcontractor relationships and the very short-term nature of the relationship of the worker and contractor, often OSHA doesn't even know where it should be looking to find out if there are violations that need to be fixed [and who should be held responsible].”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Austin, TX.