States should wait no longer for construction health and safety reforms

A construction site sign that reads, "Danger. Construction Site. No Trespassing."
Flickr photo by Fousty

Construction has been reported historically as one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) . Fatalities and injuries in construction are disproportionately high compared to other industries. For example, out of 4,114 worker fatalities in private industry in 2011, 721, or 17.5 percent, were in construction.

The leading causes of worker deaths on construction sites were falls, electrocution, being struck by an object, and being caught in or between an object. These “Fatal Four” were responsible for 57 percent of construction worker deaths in 2011. Eliminating the Fatal Four would save the lives of 410 American workers every single year.

However, despite the obvious need, OSHA has been slow to address construction hazards. The rule-making process now exceeds six years on average (PDF).

Regarding these circumstances, a frustrated Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said, “Rather than adding more bureaucracy to the process like some are proposing, Congress should be working to modernize worker protection laws so that safety officials can reasonably and effectively respond to workplace dangers with the urgency those dangers deserve.”

Hats off to the Democrats like Miller who have decided to take lifesaving legislation to the floor for debate. But, unfortunately, Republicans have refused so far to prioritize workplace protections.

The need to address construction hazards is urgent. States should not have to wait Congress or OSHA to act. To address this legislative and regulatory limbo, Public Citizen is urging California, Maryland and Washington to take matters into their own hands by passing legislation that will address the needs of the construction industry.

Public Citizen’s model legislation will fill a safety and health vacuum for construction workers in public contracting, and will change the way private industry thinks about construction safety and health.

Employers have relied on OSHA, and to a lesser extent congressional assistance, for direction and guidance for many years. But budgets have been reduced and OSHA’S staffing levels have failed to keep pace with the growth of industry. Congressional gridlock, meanwhile, has made new legislation on this issue a nonstarter. The time is now for states to step up and implement commonsense reforms for the construction industry. Our workers and the industry are depending on it.

Keith Wrightson is Public Citizen’s workplace safety expert. Follow him @SafeWorkers