House Committee Focuses on Construction Safety Following Fatal Accidents

Saying the construction industry is “facing a safety and health crisis” following a series of fatal accidents in New York City and Las Vegas, a national labor union official today told a Congressional committee today that OSHA needs to establish a new construction safety office. Speaking at a hearing called by the House Education and Labor Committee to address whether the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is failing to adequately enforce construction safety rules, Mark Ayers, president of the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO, also called for OSHA to immediately set crane safety standards, step up its job site enforcement activities; require all workers to get additional safety and health training; and increase funding for construction safety and health research. In his statement to the committee, Ayers referred to 17 construction deaths in Las Vegas in the last year. “I submit that if, God forbid, 17 police officers had perished in the line of duty we would see the National Guard patrolling the streets of Las Vegas,” Ayers commented.“Disturbingly, it seems as if America’s construction workers are viewed as disposable commodities. It is an absolute outrage, and it is something I take very personally.” The committee’s hearing comes nearly a month after a second fatal construction crane accident in Manhattan. The May 30 collapse at a site on East 91st St. killed one worker and injured two others. That incident came two months after a crane collapse that killed seven workers at a project at 51st and Second Avenue. The first accident led to the resignation of Patricia Lancaster, the city’s building inspector. New York City’s acting Building Inspector Robert LiMandri testified this morning, telling the committee that the city plans to toughen maintenance requirements and increase inspections at job site with tower cranes, according to The Associated Press. LiMandri said the city would begin documenting maintenance and major repairs to crane parts. But LiMandri said it is impossible for city inspectors to cover all the construction sites and said OSHA needs to have more federal inspectors. He urged the House members to seek more money for OSHA inspectors, according to the AP report. Also scheduled to testify today were: Edwin Foulke, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA; Mike Kallmeyer, senior vice president of construction services, Denier Electric; and George Cole, a former ironworker and brother-in-law of a worker who recently died in a Las Vegas construction accident at the $9.2 billion CityCenter project. Foulke told the committee that fatality rates have been continually going down, in both general industry and construction. “I think our efforts are working,” the AP quoted him as saying. On the same day as the May 30 crane accident in Manhattan, Ayers issued a statement noting that construction workers, who make up only 8 percent of the workforce, have more than 22 percent of all work-related deaths. He noted that 1,282 construction workers died from injuries sustained on the job in 2006, the most recent year that statistics are available. Terence O’Sullivan, general president of Laborers’ International Union of North America, who did not testify today, criticized OSHA for a four-year delay in addressing crane safety. “While today’s hearing is an encouraging step, Congress too must assess whether it is doing everything it can to keep construction workers safe,” he stated in a news release. He added that it was “disappointing” that no official action has been taken in a year by the House or Senate on the Protecting America’s Workers Act, which would cover more workers, increase penalties for violations and require more safety equipment to be supplied by employers. Like Ayers, O’Sullivan also called for OSHA’s budget to be increased. He noted that OSHA’s 2008 budget is $486 million, or about $3.89 per worker. He said safety standards and regulations need to be updated, more inspections need to be focused on the most dangerous workplaces and more training is needed for employers and supervisors. His union also calls for workers to be protected if they report unsafe working conditions and penalties to be increased.