Every day an average of four construction workers are killed as they go about building America.
When miners, firefighters and law enforcement officers are killed in the line of duty, their stories become news. We hold vigils and we mourn their loss publicly -- as we most certainly should. Yet when construction workers are killed, their tragedy too often goes unnoticed, as if the cost of building America must be injury or death on the job.
Construction work is dangerous, and those who do it understand the inherent risk of their occupation. However they should not be expected to deal with unnecessary and avoidable hazards. Unfortunately, that is exactly what many face because they lack sufficient power to protect themselves and the agency tasked with providing protection for them - the Occupational Safety and Health Administration - too often falls short.
With as many as 1,250 deaths each year, construction workers face death on the job 20 times more often than miners and 10 times more often than police officers or firefighters. While 8 percent of the U.S. workforce is employed in construction, construction workers suffer 22 percent of workplace fatalities.
Last week, the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing to address whether OSHA is adequately enacting and enforcing construction safety rules. The hearing shed light on what those in the construction industry have known for some time -- OSHA under President Bush is failing construction workers.
Much of the hearing focused on a recent wave of crane related deaths and injuries in New York, Las Vegas, Miami and Dallas, revealing a serious problem in crane safety.
In 2003, OSHA convened a panel of experts representing industry and labor to develop new safety standards for cranes. Four years ago, after 13 months of meetings, the panel developed consensus recommendations for new regulations. But, despite the support of both labor and employers, OSHA has yet to issue a proposed rule in the Federal Register.
At last week's hearing, Congressman George Miller and other members questioned OSHA chief, Edwin Foulke, about the agency's delay. Mr. Foulke offered a bureaucratic response about paper work and procedures. He never once took responsibility for OSHA's failure to move quickly to put in place crane safety regulations nor did he offer suggestions on how OSHA can speed up the process going forward.
While OSHA spent four years sitting on crane safety regulations -= despite having a standard in hand developed by industry and labor -- more than 300 workers died in crane-related accidents. Indeed, according to OSHA itself, "there are estimated to be 64 to 82 fatalities associated with cranes each year in construction, and a more up-to-date standard would help prevent them."
While last week's hearing was an encouraging step, Congress must move forward with the Protecting America's Workers Act -- an important piece of legislation to strengthen and expand the Occupational Safety and Health Act. This important legislation will cover more workers including the public employees in the many states who have no OSHA coverage or protection, increase penalties for repeated and willful violations, enhance public disclosure of safety records, require employers to provide necessary safety equipment to their workers and, perhaps most importantly in the current environment, make sure workers themselves have the power to refuse to perform work that is clearly and needlessly unsafe.
Construction workers are not a disposable commodity. The price of going to work every day to build America should never be injury or death on the job.