The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) came under fire on June 24 as the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Labor raised serious concerns over construction safety.

Led by Chairman George Miller (D – CA), the committee examined the failure of OSHA in enforcing its own regulations and creating new standards to protect millions of construction workers across America. In his opening remarks, Miller said, “There’s no question that construction is an inherently dangerous job… The question is whether more can be done to prevent accidents and make the industry safer.”

Representatives hammered OSHA’s Assistant Secretary of Labor, Edwin Foulke, over the agency’s failure to adopt a standard for crane safety four years after it was handed a consensus standard developed by an OSHA negotiated rule-making committee. The agency was also criticized for its lack of consistent enforcement and the reduction and waiving of fines and penalties for employers found in violation. Foulke defended OSHA’s practices and cited the agency as “aggressive in issuing citations and penalties for violations of the standards that address key hazards.” At the same time, he continually shifted the responsibility for training onto employers. When questioned on recent construction fatalities, Foulke appeared unaware of some pertinent facts and pointed the finger back at state OSHA agencies. Foulke’s answers did little to satisfy the Committee. At the hearing’s close, the Committee urged OSHA to re-evaluate the effectiveness of its penalties and fines and to expedite a crane safety standard.

In response to the hearing, LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan also chided OSHA’s inability to protect workers. “OSHA’s four-year delay in addressing crane safety is inexplicable, demonstrating an appalling lack of concern for the safety of construction workers and a failure to carry out the mission of the agency,” he said.

The hearing comes as construction safety captures national attention. This year, high-profile crane accidents occurred in several states including New York and Florida, resulting in injuries and fatalities. In Las Vegas, 6,000 workers walked off the CityCenter construction site in protest of the unsafe working conditions that led to multiple deaths. The series of construction-related incidents provoked criticisms of the government’s safety standards and lack of enforcement.

“While today’s hearing again exposed OSHA’s shortcomings in rulemaking and enforcement,” said O’Sullivan, “it also reinforced the notion that much work needs to be done to keep construction workers safe. Congress, with its oversight authority, must take significant steps to force OSHA to enact and enforce regulations in crane safety and other construction areas. We urge Congress to do whatever it takes to make sure OSHA fulfills its mission. We expect OSHA to accept the responsibility for workplace health and safety as mandated by Congress. The men and women who build America deserve a safe and healthy workplace.”

Along with Foulke, the Committee heard testimony from other witnesses who are closely tied to the construction industry and the recent events that took the lives of so many workers. Mark Ayers, President of the AFL-CIO’s Building Construction Trades Department recommended five major actions: required safety and health training for workers, a crane safety standard, increased enforcement, increased funding and lastly, a separate agency, like the Mine Safety and Health Administration, to cover construction safety and health. Acting Building Commissioner Robert LiMandri discussed the New York City Buildings Department’s swift reaction to recent crane incidents and how OSHA lags behind the City in inspections. Representatives also heard from a contractor’s point of view as Mike Kallmeyer, Senior Vice President of Construction Services for the Denier Electric Company, stressed the importance of preventative measures.

Moving testimony was given by George Cole, a retired 42-year-veteran Ironworker. He was the brother-in-law of Harold Billingsley, a worker who fell to his death while working on the CityCenter construction site in Las Vegas, NV. According to Cole, Billingsley’s death was a direct result of an OSHA compliance directive that eliminated a vital safety provision that would have protected Billingsley from falling 59 feet. Cole said, “On [October 5, 2007], I lost my brother and gained a statistic. The OSHA photos of his crushed and lifeless body will forever overshadow the energetic and fun-loving life of this kind and generous man.” Cole strongly noted that had OSHA rescinded unsafe compliance directives, Billingsley would be alive today.

To see video of the hearing, visit the Committee on Education and Labor’s YouTube site.

The Occupational Health and Safety Division of the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America offers a wide range of services to signatory contractors designed to create safe and productive work sites, including on-site safety audits and, together with Laborers-AGC, training programs for safety officers and supervisors. For more information, call (202) 628-5465.

[Jennifer E. Jones]