AFL-CIO Examines Construction Safety and Pushes for Better Training, Regulations

The recent trend of construction-related fatalities prompted Mark Ayers, president of AFL-CIO's Building & Construction Trades Department, to stress the need for better education, training and awareness for safety-related issues within the industry.

In a statement issued May 30, Ayers pointed out while construction workers only make up 8 percent of the work force, they suffer 22 percent of all work-related deaths. In 2006, 1,282 construction workers died from on-the-job injuries. Every day, an average of four construction workers die on the job nationwide. Almost every one of these deaths, Ayers said, is preventable.

“For those of us working in the construction safety and health field, there is no such thing as an accident, only a preventable injury. Hazards abound on construction sites, but many hazards can be reduced or eliminated,” Ayers said.

His statement followed the May 30 crane collapse in New York City that killed two workers and critically injured another. The recent spate of construction worksite fatalities in New York City and Las Vegas have raised public awareness of the dangers faced by those in the industry, Ayers said. Even so, he explained that the future will bring even more fatalities unless preventative measures are taken. He pointed out some of the risks construction workers face on the job.

“Workers in a trench can be buried alive – if the walls of the trench are not properly supported. An ironworker, so comfortable walking on a steel beam 100 feet above ground that he treats it like a sidewalk, can slip on a thin patch of dried mud or a stray bolt and fall to his death – if he is not secured with a safety harness,” Ayers explained. “Even a house painter on a ladder 10 feet above the ground can just as easily suffer a fatal fall – if he or she is carrying tools up the ladder, is using a broken ladder, or one that will not support their weight. Electrocutions, being crushed by equipment or struck by an object are just some of the other dangers.”

Ayers added that in addition to fatalities, more than 400,000 construction workers are injured annually, some sustaining career-ending or permanent disabilities. Not every injury, however, is obvious: wet cement, for example, can burn and eat away at skin with little pain. A cement burn damages muscle tissue and may even lead to amputation.

In addition, occupational illnesses, resulting from exposure to hazardous compounds, might take years to develop but still have long-term health consequences. Inhaling welding fumes, silica, paint vapors or dust from cutting bricks or concrete block can lead to numerous lung ailments, including lung cancer.

In light of these risks, Ayers pressed the need to prepare workers for the hazards they may face.

“Training and education of workers in safety and health measures is crucial,” he said. “So is training and educating the supervisory personnel and employers who control the site to ensure that safety does not fall off the daily checklist. And OSHA must step up its enforcement of job safety rules and regulations.”

The Governing Board of Presidents of the Building & Construction Trades Department will meet the week of June 3 to examine the issue of construction fatalities and safety in greater detail and formulate recommendations designed to effectively improve job site safety in the construction industry.

“Thousands of families are depending on industry stakeholders, as well as employers and well-trained workers, to look out for each other. Construction workers deserve to come home after a hard day's work, healthy and alive,” Ayers said.

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