A new study from Rice University shows that migrant roofing workers in the United States are more susceptible to poor quality of sleep, creating perilous situations that could result in severe injuries or death while on the job.

The study, “How Housing, Employment and Legal Precarity Affect the Sleep of Migrant Workers: A Mixed-Methods Study,” published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, is part of a larger research effort examining how factors like housing and legal status impact migrant workers in the U.S. who help rebuild communities following natural disasters.

With storms increasing in both frequency and severity, and the construction industry as a whole still experiencing labor shortages, migrant workers who travel to the U.S. and within it are busier than ever. As the study’s abstract notes, it is “essential” work that is also “unstable, exploitative, and dangerous.”

“It takes communities months and sometimes years to rebuild following these storms,” said lead researcher Sergio Chávez, associate professor of sociology, in a written statement. “There is an extraordinary demand for the services of these migrant workers following disasters, and it’s why we wanted to take a closer look at their lives and working conditions.”

Chávez and co-author Jing Li, adjunct associate professor of sociology and quantitative methodologist, used a targeted survey and in-depth interviews to learn more about these migrant roofers. In particular, they looked at their quality of sleep and how factors like employment, housing, job instability and substandard living conditions affect it.

Impacts of Housing and Documentation 

The researchers concluded that temporary dwellers were more likely to report restless sleep and sleep problems compared to workers residing in permanent housing. In terms of job security, roofers who worked fewer days a month, or reported stress due to not being able to work, were more likely to have sleep problems.

Meanwhile, undocumented workers tend to report shorter sleep duration, restless sleep and general sleep problems. According to the study, some respondent directly mentioned not having “papers” (the legal authorization to work) as a stressor.

“Because many migrant workers are undocumented and work in the shadows of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, we also investigated how workers’ legal status (or a lack thereof) impacts their sleep,” the researchers wrote.

Migrant roofers with family in the U.S. said they worry about being targeted by the authorities, which could lead to deportation and separation from their loved ones. Additionally, those with partners or children abroad say lacking legal status means going years without seeing their family, further impacting their sleep habits.

As a result of poor sleep quality, the risk of a worker making a mistake and hurting themselves or others increases. Roofing is already a dangerous job – it has the second highest workplace fatality rate among civilian occupations – and as the researchers noted, lack of sleep can make this work even more harrowing.

The findings are worth paying attention to, as the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that workplace fatalities increased in the roofing industry by 7.8% in 2022. Of those fatalities, 80.6% occurred due to a fall, trip or slip.

Additionally, workplace fatalities increased for Hispanic or Latino workers, who make up about three quarters of all new labor in roofing as of 2020. The BLS reported 1,248 Hispanic or Latino workplace deaths occurred in 2022 across all occupations, a 10.4% increase from the previous year.

That 2022 total breaks down to 456 workplace deaths happening to “native-born” workers, while 792 deaths occurred to “foreign-born” workers.

Roofing and Immigration 

Immigration is a complex issue that roofing companies often grapple with when seeking solutions to bolster the workforce. To unite the industry’s efforts, the National Roofing Contractors Association encourages roofing professionals from around the country to speak with their congressional representatives about immigration reform.

Among the reformations the NRCA is lobbying for is the Essential Workers for Economic Advancement Act, which would establish a new visa category, H-2C, to support 21st century economic needs. The bill would admit temporary workers to perform services for year-round, nonagricultural, less-skilled positions. As of May 2023, the bill was referred to the Judiciary, Ways and Means, and Oversight and Accountability committees in the House of Representatives.

“This innovative system would match willing employers with willing temporary workers based on economic conditions to address acute workforce shortages,” NRCA documents state. “It also will enhance workplace enforcement and security by requiring participating employers to use the E-Verify system for new hires.”

The NRCA has indicated it will continue to prioritize immigration reform during its 2024 Roofing Day event, scheduled for April 16-17 in Washington, D.C.