Recent deadly construction accidents around the country show that the nation's health and safety agencies need to do more to ensure safe working conditions for construction workers, witnesses told the House Education and Labor Committee at a hearing on June 24.
“There's no question that construction is an inherently dangerous job,” said Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the committee. “The question is whether more can be done to prevent accidents and make the industry safer.”
In 2006, 1,239 construction workers were killed on the job. While construction workers comprise only 8 percent of the total U.S. workforce, construction deaths account for more than 22 percent of all work-related deaths.
A recent spate of high profile construction and crane incidents, particularly in New York City and Las Vegas, has garnered significant media attention. According to a Las Vegas Sun investigation, 12 construction workers have been killed over the past 19 months in construction projects on the Strip. This is more deaths than during the entire 1990s construction boom in Las Vegas. In New York City, two massive construction crane collapses have killed nine people over the past few months, including one bystander.
“After 20 years of steady improvement in construction safety and health, we suddenly find ourselves in the midst of a safety and health crisis,” said Mark Ayers, president of the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO. “The outrageous number of fatalities in Las Vegas combined with crane incidents in New York and elsewhere has brought attention to the issue.”
According to reports, Miller specifically questioned why OSHA had failed to introduce a crane safety standard despite the completion of negotiated rulemaking for the proposed standard in 2004. When asked whether four years represented the typical length of time to draft the document and submit it for required reviews, SHA Assistant Secretary Edwin Foulke replied he did not have a definitive answer and that he would have to look into the issue.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not updated its crane and derrick safety standard since 1971. In 2004, labor and employer groups negotiated a draft standard to improve crane safety in order to reflect new technology and safety practices. More than four years later, even though all interested parties agreed to a new federal safety standard, federal OSHA has yet to turn that draft into an official proposal.
“Countless American cities and states depend upon these antiquated regulations because they have no localized crane oversight of their own,” said Robert LiMandri, New York City's acting Housing Commissioner. “Because tower cranes are transitory, it is imperative a better federal standard is established. The nation cannot wait another moment until the outdated OSHA tower crane regulations are revised to meet the demands of modern construction.”
Miller also questioned whether OSHA has sufficient resources to do its job. In the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens, for example, federal OSHA has only 20 inspectors to cover thousands of construction sites • and some of those inspectors are new trainees. Miller called inspections an “impossible task” and said the root cause of that problem lies in Washington.
At the hearing, Ayers called for five major actions:
1. An OSHA temporary emergency standard requiring that all workers in the industry are trained and certified in accordance with the basic 10-hour OSHA safety and health training program.
2. We need OSHA to promulgate a crane safety standard.
3. OSHA needs to increase enforcement activities.
4. A dedicated Construction Occupational Safety and Health Administration, just like we have a dedicated Mine Safety and Health Administration.
5. Increase NIOSH's funding for construction safety and health research consistent with the recommendations of the soon-to-be-released National Academies Review.