Construction injuries and fatalities cost the state of Maryland more than $700 million between 2008 and 2010, according to a report released Tuesday by Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.
The report, “The Price of Inaction: A Comprehensive Look at the Costs of Injuries and Fatalities in the Construction Industry,” suggests that the state could save money by awarding construction contracts to companies with strong safety records. Under the current system, Maryland screens potential companies based on past performance, bonding capacity and legal proceedings -- but there is no pre-qualification process based on health and safety records.
The fatalities, injuries and massive costs that result from the lack of such criteria underscore the need for reform, the report says.
“The number [$712.8] million is really nothing to sneeze at,” said Keith Wrightson, the report’s author and worker safety and health advocate for Public Citizen. “We think that this is costing the economy a lot of money, number one, but it’s also a deterrent for workers to enter the construction industry. We need highly trained individuals to build our infrastructure and safety should be a goal of all employers.”
“Everybody should have access to the public construction market but it needs to be done in a safe way where everybody’s protected,” Wrightson said. “The interests of business can’t supersede the workers.”
Mike Henderson, president of the Baltimore Metro chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, said he agreed something needed to be done about workplace safety in the state -- but he disagreed with Public Citizen’s recommendation about creating a pre-qualification process based on health and safety records.
“On the surface, it sounds like a great idea,” said Henderson, who stressed that any solution “needs to be much more thoughtful and nuanced than typically you see coming out of regulations and government.”
Henderson cautioned against evaluating the health and safety records of general contractors, which often rely on subcontractors, because they have to “accept bids at the very last minute because that’s the nature of public bidding.” As a result, general contractors may not have time to verify the safety records of each subcontractor. He said he supported job-specific safety training instead.
The Public Citizen report got its figure by tallying up the costs from three general categories: “direct costs” like hospital or physician payments, “indirect costs,” such as productivity losses or administrative costs, and “quality of life costs,” or “the value attributed to the pain and suffering of victims.” This methodology comes from a 2004 report by Waehrer et al., economists who looked specifically at the cost of occupational injuries in the American construction industry.
The construction industry is one of the most dangerous job sectors in the country. In 2010, it ranked second to the transportation industry in workplace deaths, with 780 fatalities, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Maryland, 55 construction workers died from 2008 to 2010, according to the Public Citizen report.
Although no state as of yet has a prequalification process for public construction contracts based on occupational safety and health, Wrightson said that Maryland could be a good place to start. For instance, despite the study’s findings, Maryland had the eighth fewest worker fatalities in the country in 2010, according to the AFL-CIO. And as the Public Citizen report notes, updating the state’s existing contractor pre-qualification process to include safety or health standards would be “fairly simple to implement.”