KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- By the time Dwayne Sweat began working on the Henley Street Bridge in July 2012, two construction workers had already been crushed to death at the site of workplace safety violations.
Two other construction workers had died within the last two years in Tennessee, all employed on projects involving the same company.
“The first thing I noticed was they were pushing employees at a frantic pace,” says Sweat, age 34, speaking to church groups on Labor Day weekend, Sept. 1.
After five months on the job with Britton Bridge Company – working high above the Tennessee River on the 82-year-old downtown landmark – Dwayne Sweat decided to “lay down his tools” and speak out full-time against unsafe working conditions.
“If this is what God is calling me to do, I’m going to give it all I’ve got,” said Sweat, a member at Emerald Avenue United Methodist Church.
Sweat was a speaker at an “Interfaith Worker Justice Sunday” service at his home church and later at Church of the Savior United Church of Christ. He was joined by Carlos Guzman, who also left his Henley Street renovation job to strike against Britton Bridge.
The Emerald Avenue service included a message on worker justice as a Biblical issue from the Rev. Jim Bailes, pastor, and historical information from the Rev. Jim Sessions, a retired United Methodist pastor and representative of Interfaith Worker Justice of East Tennessee.
“Dwayne personalized the issue for us by speaking about his experience on the bridge,” Bailes said. “When he talks about being on the bridge with the crane, without safety belts, it just sends chills down the spine.”
Sweat spoke of workers carrying heavy equipment over hazardous passages, high over the river and without lifelines. He said he and Guzman have had emotional meetings with families of employees who died.
John Womac, 25, was struck and killed by the arm of a back hoe in January 2011. Solin Estrada-Jimenez, 47, was crushed by falling concrete in May 2011. Britton Bridge was cited and fined $31,000 for safety violations related to the two deaths by the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Another Britton Bridge construction worker was killed in Memphis in November 2010. A fourth died outside Chattanooga in March 2012.
Tennessee’s job fatality rate is higher than the U.S. rate, 5.0 per 100,000 workers, compared with 3.6 for the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“I’m fighting with Britton Bridge to try to get them to change their ways so we can go back to work,” Sweat said.
Together with Bridges to Justice, a worker and community alliance, Sweat is meeting with Tennessee Road Builders Association and other groups to advocate for improved safety and working conditions on construction projects. Jerry Britton, chief manager of Britton Bridge, has refused a request to meet with Sweat and Guzman, Sweat said.
The role as advocate is a new one for a man whose experience is in construction.
“It’s humbling," Sweat said. "But it’s too coincidental to be coincidental … All my fears and doubts will be taken care of by Him, if I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
“Emerald Avenue has a real connection with how faith and life go together,” said Bailes, noting that many of his congregants are young adults struggling with low wages and employer issues. “Dwayne’s experience in the church has helped him open his eyes and decide to do something about it.”
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.