“It’s no secret that union organizers sometimes make an example out of a particularly unsafe nonunion contractor,” says LIUNA Tri-Fund Field Coordinator Matt Patten of the Ohio Valley & Southern States Region. “But we’re always responsible in our approach. We only contact OSHA if we see life threatening conditions.”

Yet, Patten sensed he had a problem with OSHA when Cleveland Compliance Officer Eric Peterson failed to respond some three weeks after LIUNA organizers Dan Ketterman and Izaak Velez submitted a video tape of serious safety violations at an Ohio construction site. “Our guys had been conducting a safety surveillance of a local suburban sewer and waterline contractor and taped the violations,” says Patten. “Based on what Izaak had heard from OSHA’s Cincinnati Office, he believed the agency would respond to call-ins about life-threatening problems. He was frustrated that it didn’t act and that Peterson didn’t return his follow-up calls.”

After Velez got in touch with Patten and explained the situation, Patten put in a call to the OSHA office. Peterson complained that the tape Ketterman and Velez had sent him was blank. He seemed to feel his time was being wasted by a union simply intent on harassing this particular employer.

“Right away,” Patten says, “I had a hunch that OSHA had a technical problem because I know what our organizers are doing. When I discussed it with Ketterman, it was just as I thought. Our tape was digital; OSHA probably had a VHS.”

Patten contacted the LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division Director Scott Schneider, who had a relationship with the Cincinnati OSHA office director. Schneider arranged a meeting for Ketterman, Velez, Patten and organizer Matt MacLellan with Peterson and Cleveland OSHA Office Director Rob Medlock.

“Without Scott’s help,” Patten asserts, “I don’t think we would have gotten this meeting because they opened up saying we – the Laborers – have an ‘image problem.’ They acknowledged that union sites are safe sites, but they alluded to the blank tape, an alleged lack of professionalism on our part and their perception that we’re out trying to leverage OSHA to chase down every little safety violation in order to pressure non-union contractors.”

However, Patten and the LIUNA organizers were prepared. “We suggested that OSHA also has an image problem,” says Patten. “First, we explained the safety certifications that our organizers possess. They understand the OSHA regs and what constitutes a serious violation. Next, we provided letters from the Fire Inspector and the City Engineer, supporting our observations at the construction site. We assured Peterson that we are not harassing employers. We only report violations that are immediately life-threatening and require immediate action. Finally, we played Dan’s narrated eight-minute video compilation of the site’s life-threatening safety violations, including an open trench without a box and another with a box floating eight feet off the trench.

“The compilation was brutal,” Patten continues, “and we made an impression. After that, we suggested that part of OSHA’s image problem is that it is woefully behind the times when it comes to technology. We asked them for the tape we’d sent three weeks earlier and played it in its entirety on our digital equipment. Sure enough, it wasn’t blank.”

According to Patten, the relationship between LIUNA and OSHA in the Cleveland area has made an abrupt about-face. “Now, we have a real relationship and the Cleveland office, like Cincinnati and Columbus, appears ready to accept us as a useful source of information about non-compliant worksites with life-threatening dangers.” The agency acknowledges that its budget supports surveillance of only a tiny portion of the vast number of construction sites in the area. “So long as we’re only reporting life-threatening violations,” says Patten, “we are actually helping OSHA do its job.”

Two weeks after the meeting, Peterson contacted Velez and Ketterman to say that, based on the video tape and his subsequent investigation, the taped contractor was issued five citations and fined $10,000.

“We’ve managed to prevent a possible tragedy,” says Patten, “but it took Scott’s intervention with OSHA to get this done right. If he hadn’t been able to open the door to a constructive dialogue, OSHA would still be thinking we’re trying to use them and we’d be on the outside complaining about their bureaucracy. The images would have hardened on both sides and, meanwhile, that contractor would still be risking workers’ lives.”

[Steve Clark]