Labor activists are pushing to ensure that the death of Juventino Mata-Hernandez, who was helping build one of Charlotte’s most prominent new office towers, will lead to safer working conditions.
Mata-Hernandez, 24, had been on the job for less than a week before he fell to his death, allegedly due to a malfunctioning buck hoist system, according to the North Carolina AFL-CIO labor group. He had emigrated from Mexico about two years ago. The investigation about the exact cause of the death is still underway.
The union group organized a press conference last week to criticize the project’s working conditions as unsafe and press for justice for the worker’s family. One of the speakers, Charlotte City Councilman Braxton Winston, said he wanted to assure that “the community is here and coming together, has been here, and will continue to be here, to ensure that we are building the Charlotte that is safe for all.”
The death occurred on the Tryon Street property that previously hosted the Charlotte Observer building. The development called Legacy Union will initially include a 33-story building that is expected to be the fourth-tallest project in the city when it is completed in 2019. The project is owned by a partnership of Charlotte-based Lincoln Harris and investment giant Goldman Sachs.
General contractors for the project are Providence, R.I.-based Gilbane Building Co., one of the nation’s largest contractors, and Charlotte-based Shelco. “We are very saddened by this event and hope that it never happens again, but the accusations being made that our safety conditions are less than satisfactory are absolutely ridiculous,” Gilbane spokesman Wes Cotter says.
Workplace deaths are exceedingly uncommon for Gilbane, says Cotter, noting that the company has gone through recent periods of six or seven years in which there were no casualties. The company has received numerous safety awards that are listed on the company’s website. In 2016, Gilbane says 90% of its project were completed with zero lost-time injuries.
In 2017, there were 22 “work-related fatalities” in North Carolina reported by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), including three in Charlotte.
While the husband and father of a four-year-old girl wasn’t a union member, labor officials said they will seek “justice and financial recompense” for Mata-Hernandez’s family. “Even though these are multimillion-dollar companies, they are benefiting off the cheap labor and danger that the workers put themselves in,” says Ashley Hawkins, an organizer for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which has a local office in Charlotte.
The fatality is being investigated by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police and the N.C. Department of Labor.