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Safety & Health and Small Contractors
By Scott Schneider
With smaller profit margins, fewer personnel and more intense competition, many construction contractors face unique obstacles that make success precarious. Over 90 percent of all construction companies have less than 20 employees, and almost 80 percent have less than ten employees. These are classified as small businesses.
Many in Congress believe that all regulations are bad, but much worse for small businesses. Recently, several senators introduced a bill to give small businesses (and the Small Business Administration, their government-sponsored advocate) even more power to stop regulations that might affect them.
Clearly, small businesses do not have the resources that large companies have. They do not have safety and health professionals on staff or full-time safety directors. Whoever is responsible for safety also wears two or three other hats. Safety regulations can be complicated or confusing.
The government is always caught between two approaches to regulations: specification standards and performance standards. Specification standards tell employers exactly what to do, but are relatively inflexible ("one size fits all"). Performance standards tell them the goal to be achieved but not how to get there. Performance standards are harder to cite since they do not say exactly what should be done to comply. Many small employers prefer specification standards since they are simple and clear, but they may not work in all situations.
Noel C. Borck
"Most construction contractors are small businesses and face the reality that effective safety programs involve effort and expense," says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. "Unfortunately, in the non-union sector, cost avoidance is commonplace, and regulation is necessary to ensure worker safety and a level playing field for union contractors. Our Fund supports regulation. For us, the major question is how can we make safety and health regulation easier for small businesses?"
Joint training funds. Being a signatory contractor also means participating in union training funds. Unions have joint labor-management training funds to train workers on safe work practices so workers come to the jobsite prepared and knowledgeable, even if they work for a small business.
Assistance from trade unions and trade associations.Unions and trade associations also develop very useful materials to help small employers understand the rules and how to comply with them. The LHSFNA has safety and health professionals who will come out to worksites and help with safety audits. Working union can be a significant benefit to small contractors because they gain access to union safety materials and assistance.
OSHA compliance assistance. OSHA has an entire section devoted exclusively to offering free help to small businesses. Each year, personnel make over 30,000 site visits to help small businesses figure out how they can come into compliance with OSHA rules. Unfortunately, many companies do not know about this free service, and others worry that asking for help will result in an OSHA inspection. This misperception needs to be changed.
Compliance guides. OSHA publishes numerous guides like the Construction Digest and Quick Cards that summarize the rules in plain language. The agency recently published a small business guide to the new crane standard.
"Just because they work for a small business does not mean workers should be at greater risk at their job," says Borck. "Our Fund, in collaboration with LIUNA and agencies such as OSHA, reaches out to small businesses with useful information and strong support. We make it as simple as possible to take protective measures."
To arrange an audit of your worksites and company safety programs, call the LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division at 202-628-5465.
[Scott Schneider is the Fund's Occupational Safety and Health Division Director.]