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Another Voice: Workers in the construction boom need protections

By Germain Harnden

Construction in Buffalo is booming. According to several reports, Buffalo’s construction sector is one of the hottest in the country right now.

Under normal circumstances, an uptick in economic growth is positive. But without strengthened worker protections there is a dangerous downside to the boom.

Construction is unfortunately one of the most dangerous industries out there. Of all worker fatalities, one in five worker deaths in 2014 were in construction, which is why it is so critical for worker protections to be as strong as possible.

The Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health recently conducted an investigation to see if construction workers are adequately protected on site. The findings are startling, and disappointing to say the least. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not have the bandwidth or the budget to inspect even a small fraction of area construction sites and the fines are much too low to incentivize safety.

The report gives us an even greater reason to maintain the Scaffold Safety Law, which helps keep construction sites safe. Insurers and developers are trying to gut the law, but without it, we’d see a dramatic rise in construction fatalities and injuries.

The state relies on OSHA to enforce construction employer safety standards by inspecting construction sites, issuing citations and assessing penalties for violations of standards. “Fatal Falls: The Downside of the Construction Boom” revealed that there simply aren’t enough OSHA inspectors. Almost 3,700 single-family construction permits were issued in 2013 and 2014, but only 288 OSHA inspections were conducted in 2014.

Of the inspections OSHA was able to conduct, 83 percent led to a violation, and 82 percent of those were classified as serious.

While opponents who want to cut corners on safety and limit safety requirements claim that the Scaffold Safety Law is behind recent increases in contractor’s liability insurance, there is no data to support this claim. Premiums are going up everywhere, not just in states with worker safety protections. The easiest way to reduce insurance costs is to prevent injuries by providing proper safety equipment.

If contractors follow the rules and make safety a priority, they won’t pay a dime in court.

We must improve worksite safety. Congress should increase the number of OSHA inspectors to ensure that all workplaces are regularly inspected and increase fines so that they are an effective deterrent.

But our state lawmakers must also reject the call to eliminate the Scaffold Safety Law.

Germain Harnden is executive director of the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health.