Activists are concerned that many construction workers in New York do not know their rights

New Yorkers who live next to construction sites – and there are thousands of active sites in the city – have been a little uneasy lately.

A few weeks ago, a crane 60 metres long tipped over, crushing a nearby building and killing seven people.

Four of them were construction workers. Three of them were just hanging out on a Saturday afternoon.

And it was not an isolated incident. There has been a string of highrise construction accidents in recent months, including two window washers who plunged more than 40 floors to what should have been certain death.

Miraculously, one survived.

Further victims

The fact is, on average one construction worker dies a week in New York City - and for every one killed many more are injured.

Latinos make up the largest, and fastest growing, group of victims, like "Juan", 35, who fell and split his head open on the job three years ago.

Juan had been thrilled to make as much as $130 a day at building sites, enough to take care of himself and his wife and four children back in Mexico.

He could make more money and work fewer hours in construction than he did washing dishes.

Then he fell through a hole in the floor, landing on his back in the cement basement. He lost a lot of blood and was unconscious in the hospital for a week.

'Dangerous conditions'

If confronted with dangerous conditions the worker will go and do [the work] because it is the only option he has

Most construction fatalities are the result of falls. Of the 43 incidents that took place in New York in 2006, almost half of them involved Latinos, according to the Department of Labour Statistics.

Fatalities rose 87 per cent that year, the most recent for which numbers are available.

Luzdary Giraldo, an outreach worker for the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, says the construction industry targets immigrants who do not speak English well.

"They know they don't know about their rights. And they know they will do their job, regardless," Giraldo told Al Jazeera.

"If confronted with dangerous conditions the worker will go and do [the work] because it is the only option he has."

Immigrant issue

Undocumented workers are easy to find. Every morning they group along 69th street in Queens, at a community centre on Staten Island, and in many other New York neighbourhoods where recent immigrants live.

Contractors in vans or pick-up trucks drive up looking for cheap labour. Typically, the workers swarm and there is a brief period of negotiation, then a few men jump in and are whisked off to job sites.

They have been in high demand. Spending on construction climbed seven per cent in 2007 to $26.2 billion, according to the New York Building Congress, a trade organisation.

According to New York Construction Workers United, about 64 per cent of the city's 250,000 construction workers are immigrants who do the vast majority of non-union work.

Basic security equipment like harnesses and – in Juan's case - hard hats are often lacking from job sites.

Those who do receive safety equipment are often forced to pay for it themselves. Many are afraid to complain because they do not want to be blacklisted or risk being deported if they are illegal.

No rights

After two week in the hospital, Juan's boss showed up and took him home.

"He told me it was nothing, I should go back to work the next week," Juan told Al Jazeera through an interpreter. He never went back.

This man said many injured workers are too
afraid to seek medical help

Other workers say they are discouraged from going to see a doctor when injured.

"He tell my friend, if you go to the hospital, tell them you hurt your foot playing soccer," one man told Al Jazeera.

The friend too was afraid to seek medical help.

Giraldo says even undocumented workers have rights in the US, but many do not know it.

The employer is required to pay for on-the-job injuries, and they may also qualify for workers compensation.

Juan remembers being alone in his apartment and barely having the strength to call his wife, two weeks after the accident.

He stayed in bed for months before hiring a lawyer to help him get compensation. He still suffers from dizzy spells, hearing loss and headaches.

Economic pressures

Three years later, he has been offered a one-time workers compensation settlement of $35,000, but he does not think it is enough.

He says his two brothers in Wisconsin have been supporting him and his family and he needs more money to pay for his children's education, so they can have a better life in Mexico.

 Contractors pick up workers for jobs every
day in New York's Queens neighbourhood

"Like everybody, I come to this country for economic reasons," Juan said.

Now his wife is planning to spend $3,000 to be smuggled across the Mexican border so she can join him in New York and work as a domestic while a grandmother raises the children back home.

Juan has never met his six year-old son, who was born after he left Mexico.

The crane accident has prompted municipalities from cities such as Philadelphia to Dallas to review the regulations governing construction sites – and many have found them lacking.

Advocates like Giraldo feel more has to be done to ensure undocumented workers receive the same treatment as others.

"They are responsible for building the economy," she said.

And one thing is clear after the March crane accident that killed seven people - dangerous construction sites can put the entire public at risk.