Sometimes you can tell the level of disgust a news story will generate just by reading the headline. Such was the case with yesterday’s news, and a story whose banner read, “15-year-old dies after falling on first day of work for Alabama roofer, cops say”. It told of the death of an underage Guatemalan boy who died in Alabama Monday after falling nearly 40 feet off of a roof. It was his very first day on the job as a construction worker.

He was, as the headline indicates, just 15 years old.

The company he was employed by had been hired to work on the roof of a gray iron factory in Cullman, AL. He fell through an unsupported section of the roof around 11AM Monday and was pronounced dead at the scene.  

This story has the potential to serve as a stunning example of broader concerns in workers’ comp, from proper hiring practices to safety concerns to potential gaps in coverage for the construction industry that we addressed just last week. But the concerns, of course, run much deeper than just comp. They are societal in nature and challenge the very notion of common sense in business today.

After all, what kind of moron puts an untrained 15-year-old kid on an unsecured roof 40 feet above the ground? 

Nothing in this story provides any assurance that this was a well-managed worksite. First, the kid was 15. He was not legally employable in this type of job. He was from Guatemala. Was he here legally? If his age was not an issue would he have been able to accept employment without violating the law? Were his language skills such that he could understand workplace warnings and instructions? In the current hyper-political environment, the news outlets won’t address these questions. 

Good thing I’m not hyper-politically sensitive. 

And what was the work culture on this site? According to police, safety equipment was installed on the roof but was not being used. The cables and harnesses designed to prevent this type of fall were lying on the roof unused. Potentially lax supervision and poor work habits are what leads to that type of behavior.

I’ll bet they were all wearing them when the OSHA inspectors arrived.

Finally, we have the potential coverage issues that have started becoming a concern on construction sites. This boy was employed by a subcontractor, who had been hired by a General Contractor to complete the roofing work. The GC, for their part, roundly condemned the hiring practices of their sub the moment the kid fell through the roof. They didn’t waste a second assuring the media that this type of hiring practice was not one of their standards.

But it was part of their jobsite, and as such becomes their problem very quickly. 

Last week we wrote about what is called the “PEO Coverage Gap” that is a growing concern here in Florida and potentially elsewhere. It involves the current contractual arrangements with construction firms using a PEO (Professional Employer Organization) that create holes in coverage when tied to lax (and potentially moronic) hiring practices of the construction industry. In previous years, these PEO arrangements left the insurers of the larger General Contractors to pay the bills when a “paid under the table” employee of a PEO client subcontractor was injured. Now that larger General Contractors have started using PEO’s, some, in Florida at least, are concerned that there is an increasing gap leaving workers completely unprotected.

In this particular story, we can’t be sure of the arrangement, but a quick search of Alabama coverage databases gives us a clue. The General Contractor in this case appears to be covered by a traditional workers’ compensation insurance policy. A company with a name very close to that of the subcontractor appears to have coverage from a carrier whose book of business consists primarily of PEO’s. Will this be one of those coverage issues created by sloppy hiring practices of the subcontractor? Or was this 15-year-old properly documented and registered on the PEO’s payroll? The latter seems unlikely, but we just don’t know at this point. If it turns out to be such, people opposed to the use of PEO’s in the construction industry will be able to hoist this accident as a very effective battle flag for their cause. 

Our article last week about the coverage concerns evoked a considerable response and appears to have triggered more action in the state regarding this potential issue. I will be following up in more detail next week. 

All of this, however, is merely debate over legal process and procedure. At the end of the day, we still have a 15-year-old boy who died in a place and position he had no business occupying. The discourse around this accident may be civil, but the act of placing him in peril is criminal in my mind. And the disgust we feel is palpable.  

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