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Collapse of Baltimore's Key Bridge highlights risks construction workers face

The steel frame of the Francis Scott Key Bridge sit on top of a container ship after the bridge collapsed in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 26, 2024. The bridge collapsed after being struck by a container ship, sending multiple vehicles and up to 20 people plunging into the harbor below.
MANDEL NGAN
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AFP via Getty Images
The steel frame of the Francis Scott Key Bridge sit on top of a container ship after the bridge collapsed in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 26, 2024. The bridge collapsed after being struck by a container ship, sending multiple vehicles and up to 20 people plunging into the harbor below.

BALTIMORE– Long before sunrise, Ingrid Sol greets dozens of painters, roofers, dockers, and construction workers at her food stand in southeastern Baltimore.

They come here for coffee, baleadas, and other food before heading to their jobs, helping to keep this city and port running.

Most of them are Latino. Many are immigrants.

"They come by every day looking for nourishment, and I appreciate them," says Sol, who immigrated to the United States from Honduras about four years ago.

Marcos Granos regularly stops by here to get breakfast on his way to a construction job. He's part of a crew remodeling a physical rehabilitation facility in nearby Dundalk.

"We're ready to start a new day with a good attitude," says Granos, born in Mexico. "Work to earn the daily bread."

Even with that positive outlook, Granos is fully aware of the dangers for people working in risky construction jobs.

On his mind this rainy morning are the workers who fell into the water when the Scott Key Bridge collapsed after being hit by a cargo vessel in the early morning of March 26. They were filling potholes.

Officials rescued two people that same day. So far, they have recovered three bodies, but the remaining are still missing and presumed dead.

Most of these workers had roots in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico. They each left behind families and loved ones.

"We go out to work, and sometimes we don't know if we're going to return home or not," says Granos. "It's very sad because there were many Latinos like us."

Since the collapse, crews and cranes have worked to clean the debris while officials have been trying to recover the remaining bodies of the workers.

Last week, President Joe Biden paid a visit to the port of Baltimore — where he met with the families of those who died. He offered his condolences and called the men "hard-working, strong, and selfless."

Baltimore workers honored the six Latino construction workers who lost their lives when the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed after it was struck by the container ship Dali, in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 29, 2024. Migrant groups
MANDEL NGAN / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Baltimore workers honored the six Latino construction workers who lost their lives when the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed after it was struck by the container ship Dali, in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 29, 2024. Migrant groups

A risky occupation

This accident is a tragic reminder of the dangers that immigrant workers face every day.

CASA, an advocacy group based in Maryland, called on the president to extend Temporary Protected Status and Advance Parole to undocumented construction workers, thereby providing them with work permits.

CASA estimates that 130,000 immigrants work in construction throughout the Baltimore and Washington D.C. regions.

"The Key Bridge collapse sent shivers down the spine of every immigrant who heads out to a dangerous workplace every day," said Gustavo Torres, the executive director for CASA, in a statement. "They know what it is like because immigrant workers often swallow the perils of their job in order to put food on their family's table. We have done so for decades without thanks and without recognition."

Among those echoing the call to support immigrant workers is Darwin Orlando López, a CASA community member who helped organize a vigil for the six men who died. As a construction worker, López says that immigrants get hurt almost every day — including himself; he once fell from one roof onto another.

"Right now, everybody's focused on the bridge but it happens so often it's not even in the news," says López, who was born in Honduras and has lived in Baltimore County for 23 years.

Construction workers like Ramón Méndez say they know they are often at the mercy of the elements — maneuvering heavy machinery and surrounded by latent dangers. He says they have few choices when it comes to providing for their families.

"I have four kids who depend on me," says Méndez, born in Mexico. "I don't want to think about being in the same place [as the men who died]."

Construction workers are at greater risk of falling from roofs, getting hit by heavy equipment, and being injured or killed by machinery than other jobs — according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In 2022, for example, 1,092 construction workers in the private industry and in government jobs died, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' online database. More than a quarter of these fatalities were Hispanic or Latino.

José Mauricio Rauda of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades says construction and similar fields like bridge and industrial painting are dangerous.

He was previously on a crew that refinished and painted the Scott Key Bridge a few years ago.

"Just imagine you go up high, and you don't even know how to put on a harness," says Rauda, born in El Salvador. "You can fall and be killed or be crippled for life."

There are also everyday risks like getting struck in the head and body by metal beams, he says, or inhaling toxic metals like lead and mercury.

Rauda, who now runs safety training for workers, says helmets and respirators are crucial, in addition to safety meetings at the start of each day.

"It might not seem like much, but it's vital," says Rauda.

Still, he says there is only so much the Scott Key Bridge workers could have done.

"I imagine they had a plan, too," says Rauda. "The only thing that wasn't planned was that the entire bridge was going to collapse."

Despite the dangers, José Martín Oviedo says workers are willing to risk their health and lives each day because it's an honest way to earn a living. He's a forklift operator, so it's his job to carry hundreds of pounds of materials at construction sites — with his colleagues often working below him.

A safety helmet from a construction worker from the Baltimore area.
Hector Alejandro Arzate / Hector Alejandro Arzate
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Hector Alejandro Arzate
A safety helmet from a construction worker from the Baltimore area.

"We need to go out to work. Fear is not going to maintain you," says Oviedo, a member of the Laborers' International Union of North America in Baltimore.

While the bridge collapse is a different set of circumstances than most workplace injuries or deaths, says Oviedo, he hopes it can serve as a lesson.

"No one expected a crash, but it's sad — the loss of humans," says Oviedo. "If it happened once, let's try to avoid it a second time."

Like many others, construction has also been a pathway for a better life since Oviedo came to the U.S. from Mexico about 30 years ago.

He's now a legal permanent resident and is proud to be one of many Latinos whose job helps build this country.

"When a project is finished, people can say, 'Look, it was a Hispanic who built it,'" says Oviedo.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Héctor Alejandro Arzate

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