Nashville leaders and organizers call for changes to construction safety

    A construction worker walks past a sign the reads
    A construction worker walks past a sign the reads "Please wash your hands for at least 25 seconds" at a construction site. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

    Workers-rights advocates will file a bill to hold contractors accountable for incidents that have resulted in Nashville being named one of the most dangerous cities in the South for construction workers.

    On Tuesday, several Metro council members and community leaders held a press conference to address allegations of unsafe and unhygienic construction sites that have led to numerous COVID-19 clusters over the summer. 

    “[Construction workers] can’t afford to live here but we can at least make sure they’re safe,” said Tequila Johnson, vice-president of the Equity Alliance. “They’re the ones who make this city what it is, attractive for tourists.”

    Members of Stand Up Nashville, a group of community organizers from labor unions, neighborhood groups and churches, said that relaxed oversight on construction sites led to the death of Gustavo Ramirez. Ramirez was 16-years-old when he died after falling off a scaffold on a construction site for a La Quinta Inn.  Allegedly he had not received safety training nor was he provided the safety equipment that could have prevented his death.  

    Councilmember Sandra Sepulveda, the lead sponsor of the bill, called for accountability from the city to avoid giving out contracts to companies with a record of violations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

    Metro Nashville Councilmember Sandra Sepulveda (D30)
    Metro Nashville Councilmember Sandra Sepulveda (D30)

    Councilmember-at-large Zulfat Suara says she wants to discourage contractors from using subcontractors to avoid liability. Ramirez is believed to have been hired by a subcontractor and the general contractor on site was unaware of the teen’s age.

    “We at Metro government are one of the biggest purchasers of construction jobs and we’re going to set the standard, not just the standard for Metro but for the private sector,” Suara said.

    Cecilia Prado from Worker’s Dignity, an advocate group for immigrant worker rights, said the bill had been in the making since 2019 but gained momentum after Ramirez’s death and allegations of workers not being compensated for construction jobs or injuries. 

    “[Workers are] experiencing frustrating barriers in getting medical attention. Most don’t know they’re entitled to benefits; bosses are frustrated that accidents happen and force workers to buy their own safety equipment,” said Prado, who spoke to the Tennessee Lookout in a call after the press conference.

    Vanessa Neria, an organizer with Worker’s Dignity and representative of the Women of Construction campaign, added that despite many construction workers being Hispanic, few contractors employ bilingual staff. While working construction, Neria received little to no information about worker’s rights and had no access to sanitary bathrooms or separate bathrooms for women. 

    “If you are a woman and you don’t speak English, they do not take you seriously,” she said. 

    According to Prado, the state employs 34 inspectors to supervise almost 100 commercial projects, and only two mediators in the state speak Spanish; mediators are responsible for providing resolution services on issues such as workers compensation. 

    The Lookout reached out to the Tennessee Chapter of  Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade association representing commercial contractors. A spokesman said he would not be able to comment until he has read the bill, which could be filed Friday.