The summer building months are here, and it’s time for construction companies and general contractors to step up their efforts to ensure worker safety.
Falls are the leading killer on construction sites. And heat exhaustion is a major cause of worker illness in the summer. So the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has outreach campaigns to address these dangerous workplace problems, made possible because of a labor-friendly presidential administration that allocates the funds needed to make programs like this possible.
Employers must be urged to participate in the safety efforts voluntarily. More of them should do so — and insurance companies could play a role in seeing that they do.
OSHA’s heat-exhaustion campaign focuses on the importance of water, rest and shade. It’s a loud-and-clear message, but not all employers are listening: Thousands of workers become sick each year, and some die from working in the heat. In 2012, there were 31 heat-related worker deaths and 4,120 illnesses.
OSHA has only nine investigators on Long Island to oversee a workforce of more than 1.28 million people, including more than 115,000 in construction. Last year, OSHA issued 11 heat-related citations on Long Island. In these cases, the employer and staffing agency were cited because they involved temporary immigrant workers.
On Long Island, OSHA has also issued citations to a few companies that were in violation of providing safe workplaces.
OSHA’s Stand-Down campaign — a weeklong effort earlier this month — was geared toward preventing construction falls. Most slip-and-fall accidents are avoidable — yet, sadly, 32 such deaths occurred on New York construction sites in 2012. Across the country, that number was a mostly preventable 290 deaths, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Labor unions with government-certified apprenticeship training programs mandate that their members take OSHA safety classes that focus on heat exhaustion, fall prevention and accident avoidance. And public-sector construction sites in New York require their contractors to have such apprenticeship programs. As a result, these tend to be the safest worksites.
The majority of worksites are nonunion, and that’s where most accidents occur. Unfortunately, many nonunion employers don’t mandate the safety courses. OSHA investigations from 2003 to 2011 found that measures to impose construction-worker safety nationwide in general are meager and lack follow-through, especially at nonunion worksites.
More local unions, employer associations and construction-site insurance providers should embrace OSHA’s programs. Doing so will save lives. But if that’s not reason enough, it will also save money.
Construction site deaths are tragic and costly, so it’s time to explore a credit system through insurance companies. Insurers could provide discounts to employers who require their workers to take OSHA safety classes. This may entice more participation among nonunion and small contractors, as well as those who employ immigrants.
Saving lives should be incentive enough. But if it’s not, financial benefits may just do the trick.
Kris LaGrange is host of the “UComm Radio” show and head of UComm, a labor-focused communications firm in Bay Shore.