In past installments in this series, we've looked at regulations that came about in the wake of singular catastrophes that spurred us to action. Sometimes, though, the impetus for regulation is a steady, all-too-easy-to-ignore drip-drip-drip of attrition that just goes on and on and on until someone finally sits up and says holy crap! someone needs to do something about this! Today, we'll look at one of those -- an industry that even today kills far more people each year than have died in all of these "How Regulation came to be" diaries to date.
I've worked in construction-related jobs most of my working life. But the emphasis on "related" is not trivial. Most of my "construction" is done from behind a desk. I've actually only spent one single summer out in the weather doing real, hands-on construction work.
Inside, we'll look at the steady drip-drip that finally prompted someone to try to do something about construction safety while I relate tales of a summer spend cavorting amongst the drops.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), "Construction has about 6% of U.S. workers, but 20% of the fatalities - the largest number of fatalities reported for any of the industry sectors." Wikipedia's article on construction site safety says,
[t]he leading safety hazards on site are falls from height, motor vehicle crashes, electrocution, machines, and being struck by falling objects. Some of the main health hazards on site are asbestos, solvents, noise, and manual handling activities.
|"Number and Rate of Fatal Occupational Injuries by Industry, 2007",
Bureau of Labor Statistics,
Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, 1992-2007 (preliminary)
When I came home after finals at the end of my freshman year in college in 1968, not having planned ahead, I went out looking for a summer job. In the process of putting in an application at a local distribution center for a grain-storage manufacturing company, I ran across S____, the son of the manager who had been three years ahead of me in school. He was organizing an independent construction crew to put up the bins and hoppers farmers bought from the distribution center. He invited me to join his company, which consisted so far of him and two of his classmates, L__ and G___. I'd be handling powerful tools and dangerous equipment in potentially life-threatening situations under the supervision of people barely more mature than myself. What could possibly go wrong? I readily signed on.
Construction has always been a dangerous business. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries those undertaking construction projects just accepted that there would be a certain number of construction deaths on large projects. Accounts vary, but
between twenty and thirty workers were killed in building the Brooklyn Bridge. When only 11 workers died during the construction of the Golden gate Bridge between 1933 and 1937, it was considered a record to be admired.
In the 1930s, bridge builders expected 1 fatality per $1 million in construction costs, and builders expected 35 people to die while building the Golden Gate Bridge. One of the bridge's safety innovations was a net suspended under the floor. This net saved the lives of 19 men during construction, and they are often called the members of the "Half Way to Hell Club."
About,com: Golden Gate Bridge Facts
The big dam-building projects of the 1930s produced what today seem to be extraordinarily high death tolls. During construction of the Hoover Dam between 1931 and 1939, 112 workers died. The Grand Coulee dam claimed 77 lives between 1933 and 1942. Despite improvements in safety practices, the construction of the Garrison Dam in North Dakota two decades later, for instance, still cost 16 fatalities due to construction accidents and several more due to heart attacks and strokes.
In the cities, skyscraper construction in the early years of the twentieth century was expected to claim one life per floor of height. When the construction of the Empire State Building claimed only between five to fourteen lives, depending on the source, it would have been (and actually was) considered an exceptional accomplishment, had it not been overshadowed by the nearby Chrysler Building, which was completed eleven months earlier without the loss of life of a single life. These projects served as an object lesson that the "conventional wisdom" of the volume of construction deaths to be expected did not have to be accepted.
Still, as late as the 1970s, the construction of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline claimed 32 lives.
T-u-r-r-r-r-n. i-t-t-t-t. o-f-f-f-f-f, Part I
|A small hopper to illustrate the configuration.
The ones we worked on were larger.
Our equipment was a cobbled-together conglomeration of whatever S____ was able to beg, borrow, or rent cheap. It wasn't the best quality or condition available. Our extension ladders, especially, were in particularly bad condition, for reasons that will become apparent later. Most were missing footpads, rungs were bent and loose, all were aluminum, but then, at time, everyone's
The bins and hoppers were made up of pre-cut and punched steel panels, coated with a slick, oily film of lubricant that aided forming in the factory but could make them treacherous in the field. They were bolted together on the jobsite, which meant we needed one man outside installing the bolt in the hole and holding it with a wrench, and one man inside running the nut on with an electric impact gun. When working on the inverted cone at the bottom of the hoppers, a ladder had to be set up inside the cone so the inside man could follow the seam up as the segments were stitched together.
Moving the ladder could be a cumbersome operation. The bottom end of the hopper had a heavy metal ring that the ends of the v-shaped hopper panels attached to, which made for close quarters with a worker and a ladder both trying to fit through a 3-foot diameter ring. Once a couple of panels were in place, though, things got easier, because the ring would keep the bottom of the ladder constrained so it couldn't slip out from under, and the inside man could just 'jump' the ladder to the next seam, ala John Belushi's "Bluto" in Animal House It worked pretty well until the sharp, foot-less end of the ladder landed on top of the extension cord powering the impact gun.
That's when you'd hear the guy inside yelling, "T-u-r-r-r-r-n. i-t-t-t-t. o-f-f-f-f-f, t-u-r-r-r-r-n. i-t-t-t-t. o-f-f-f-f-f!" and someone would have to go running to the power supply and jerk the cord out of the socket.
Federal efforts to apply regulation to the construction industry in the early twentieth century were indirect, at best. Although there were state-level initiatives before it, the first significant piece of legislation appears to have been the Walsh-Healy Public Contracts Act (5-page pdf) of 1936 which
stated that workers must be paid not less than the "prevailing minimum wage" normally paid in a locality; restricted regular working hours to eight hours a day and 40 hours a week, with time-and-a-half pay for additional hours; prohibited the employment of convicts and children under 18; and established sanitation and safety standards.
The Walsh-Healy act, like so many attempts to introduce regulation where none had existed before, applied only to federal contracts, but at the time of its passage in the middle of the Great Depression, construction projects funded with federal money were a significant part of the available work -- indeed, in some places it was very nearly the only game in town. In terms of the safety provisions, however, the act did nothing to alleviate the patch-work nature of construction safety regulation, just demanded the contractor comply with them:
Compliance with the safety, sanitary, and factory inspection laws of the State in which the work or part thereof is to be performed shall be prima-facie evidence of compliance with this subsection.
Hold the Ladder
One of the last tasks in assembling the bins was installing the permanent ladder, which ran up the side and then followed the slope of the roof to the hatch at the peak. One side bolted in common with the seams of the panels, but the holes for the other side had to be drilled.
We had just the drill for this task. We didn't give it a name, but if we had it would have been 'Big Bertha' or something like that, because it was. It weighed about ten pounds, had a 3/4-inch-capacity chuck as I recall, all-metal housing, a D-handle grip that doubled as a shoulder stock, plus a 3/4" diameter pipes threaded into a hole on the side of the housing as an auxiliary handle. It wasn't like the high-speed consumer drills you buy in the hardware store. You could just about count the revolutions as this thing slowly turned the bit, cutting, more than drilling, a hole through the metal. You needed that foot-long pipe handle to hold it, because this beast had Torque with a capital 'T''.
Toward the end of one project, L__ and G___ were on the roof installing the ladder when I heard a call to hold the extension ladder, meaning someone was coming down. As I stood there steadying the stiles I felt something warm and moist hit my hand. I looked over and saw -- blood. G___ was coming down the ladder with a nasty split in his forehead draining blood profusely.
While L__ and G___ were drilling holes for the ladder, the drill had bound and spun -- remarkably quickly for a drill that seemed to turn so slowly when drilling -- and the pipe sidehandle cracked G___ in the head. As L__ told it, G___ had straightened up, staring with that look that tells you they aren't really seeing anything and swayed for a few seconds, as L__ grabbed his collar and steadied him until he recovered full consciousness and could negotiate the ladder to go down.
A trip to town and a few stitches later and G___ was as good as new and back on the job. But we all knew that if he had passed out completely L__ would never have been able to hold him, perched as precariously as we always were when working on the slippery panels of the roof.
And, of course, neither was wearing a safety harness. None of us did. We didn't have any. They weren't part of the equipment S____ had been able to cobble together. And frankly, we wouldn't have worn them if he had. Those things were for sissies.
At one time, employers rarely provided protective gear on construction sites, employees were expected to bring their own tools, and construction workers had a certain macho disregard for safety equipment.
"Nowadays, you can't go on a construction site without seeing people wearing hard hats," says Zettler, who has worked for OSHA since 1975. "It's become a symbol of the trade. In the pre-OSHA days, that was not the case. The culture of the industry was that anyone who wore safety equipment was viewed as a wimp."
OSHA'S Top 25 Construction Violations
The Top Ten Construction Site Violations for 2006:
1.Scaffolding, General Requirements (7895 violations)
2.Duty to Have Fall Protection (5746 violations)
3.Hazard Communication (5586 violations)
4.Respiratory Protection (3410 violations)
5.Lockout/Tagout (3068 violations)
6.Powered Industrial Trucks (2582 violations)
7.Electrical, Wiring Methods, Components, and Equipment for General Use (2396 violations)
8.Machine Guarding, General Requirements (2296 violations)
9.Ladders (2115 violations)
10.Electrical, General Requirements (1791 violations)
T-u-r-r-r-r-n. i-t-t-t-t. o-f-f-f-f-f, Part II
Double-insulated power tools were first introduced in the 1950's, but took a long time to catch on in the trades due to the poor reputation plastics had at the time. Our tools were all single insulated. They had metal housings. All had cords with a ground wire, but many of them had the ground prong on the plug cut off so they could be plugged into an ungrounded socket without using an adapter. Many of the farms we were working on didn't have a grounded electrical supply for us to plug into, anyway.
The tools were also old, and the insulation on the wiring inside was apparently cracked, because the least bit of moisture in the air would tend to send electrical shocks tingling through our arms. On those days when there was mist in the air we'd try to find things around the site that could be done without the use of the power tools.
If there was nothing left except tasks needing power, we worked until the shocks just got too scary, and then knocked off and headed into town to the local tavern. If the rain ended and we were still sober enough, we'd head back out to the site and go back to work.
We were boys barely out of adolescence. We were always sober enough.
|Fatalities by selected occupations in private construction|
Ironworkers, roofers and laborers -- our little group fit all of those categories to some extent or another -- have always ranked among the higher rates of injury and fatality in the construction industry. According to the Construction Chart Book, in 2005, falls caused 396 of 1,243 work-related deaths from injuries (32%), and 36,360 nonfatal injuries – 23% of the total. Electrocution was the fourth leading cause of death in construction in 2005, after falls to a lower level, transportation injuries, and being struck by objects and equipment. Electrocutions caused 9% of 1,243 construction worker deaths.
|Fatalities by occupations within construction|
The Ladder Toss
|A typical hopper of the type
and size we erected
I only did the ladder toss once. Construction Summer ended before my turn came around again, for which I have spent the last forty years profoundly grateful. I had never before nor have I ever since voluntarily done anything half as scary.
I described the method we used to stitch up the inverted cone at the bottom of the hoppers. There was one unsurmountable flaw in the method; at the end of the assembly, the ladder was still inside, and there was no possible way it could be got out the bottom. It couldn't stay there, obviously, so it either had to be cut into little pieces and removed -- too expensive a proposition for our operation -- or it had to come out the one remaining point of egress -- through the hatch in the roof.
The "tosser" climbed up on the roof and dropped a rope down through the hatch, which someone below tied to the ladder section inside the hopper. Then everyone below got the hell out of the way as the tosser pulled the ladder up through the hatch.
The permanent ladder was installed on the roof by this time, which provided solid footing for one foot. But it was only about eighteen inches wide, and the tosser would need a much wider stance than that to achieve the balance required for what he was about to do. So the tosser stood with one foot on the roof ladder and the other standing on one of the seams in the slippery roof panels with the instep of his shoe wedged against the head of a 3/8" diameter bolt head as he pulled the ladder up hand-over-hand until he was standing on the oily roof, on ladder and bolt-head, balancing a 16- or 18-foot extension ladder section straight up in the air. Bringing the ladder down from that position without losing control or being thrown off balance in unpredictable ways was a near impossibility, so the only option left was to heave it as far as he could.
Now if you were the tosser, you couldn't just toss the ladder willy-nilly. You had to do it just so, first, so it didn't hit the bin or worse, you, and second, so that if you fell -- and chances were you were going to come at least very, very, very close to losing your balance and falling -- if you fell you'd fall forward. Because you didn't want to fall backward. Backward meant sliding off the roof head first on your back. There were no good outcomes associated with backward. And you didn't want to fall sideways because, except for rolling rather than sliding, and maybe having an outside chance of being able to grab the roof ladder with one hand as you slid by and an even further-outside chance of hanging on, it ended pretty much the same as backward.
No, forward was the only way to go. Forward lay the rim of the roof hatch. Forward was salvation, something to grab onto, grab with both hands and hang on tight as the ladder clattered to the ground and you tottered forward and your feet slipped out from under you and then you lay there hugging the hatch opening, panting, your heart racing, waiting for that feeling like you might throw up to pass.
That was the Ladder Toss.
|2005 Death Rates per 100,000 Workers, Selected Countries|
Is it a coincidence that the two countries with the worst death rates were Fascist corporatist states three quarters of a century ago? What does our ranking close on their heels say about us? I'll leave it to you to decide that. This chart says we haven't been making much progress:
|U. S. Construction Deaths, 1992 - 2005|
While my co-workers and I were cavalierly taunting a finger of fate that sat back bemused, knowing it could crush us like bugs whenever the whim struck, other friends were having their own Construction Summers. At a grain elevator in a nearby town, a friend of mine and two acquaintances I'd met through him were working on a hundred-foot-tall concrete grain silo.
As Construction Summer wound down toward fall, they were doing finishing work on the side of the silo, working off a suspended platform of the sort high-rise window washers use, when one of the supports suddenly failed and dropped the platform out from under them. They fell, but only to the end of the tethers attached to their safety harnesses. After what I'm sure in their minds was a far-too-large part of an hour spent dangling two-and-a-half seconds above Death, they were finally rescued, suffering only some scrapes and bruises from the ordeal.
Why they had harnesses and we didn't I can't say for sure. Their employer may have been a union shop and the union contract required the employer to provide them, or the insurance company may have insisted on it, or maybe the owner just thought it was a good idea to protect the company's workers. But to my knowledge there was nothing in any law or government regulation that required it, and if there was, it likely exempted small 5-man companies like ours, and even if we were covered, there was no one with the means and resources who was charged with enforcing it.
My friend confided to me some time later that they didn't always wear the harnesses, even suspended on a rickety platform a hundred feet above the ground, and not everyone always wore them even when others were, and if they didn't no one made them. But on that particular day on that particular platform at that particular moment all three of them had them on. Whether Construction Summer had anything to do with it I don't know, but my friend today is a devoutly religious person.
Section 5 Duties
(a) Each employer --
(1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees;
(2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.
Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970
Two years after Construction Summer Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, signed by President Richard M. Nixon, on December 29, 1970. It established the administration of the same name, OSHA, with broad power over worker safety. For the first time, someone was formulating and enforcing nation-wide rules for worker safety on construction sites.
I confess, though, that this is not the diary I had planned to write. As conceived in my mind a few weeks ago, it would be a simple thing -- anecdotes of my construction experiences for whatever amusement value they might provide interspersed with some perhaps dry statistics comparing death and accident rates before regulation with rates after, and observing the trends since the enactment of OSHA.
Except that those "before and after" figures aren't available on the internet in any readily accessible or useful form, and while Mark Ayers, president of the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO alluded to "20 years of steady improvement in construction safety and health" at a 2008 House committee hearing, it would be difficult for the average layman (read "citizen") to verify that improvement. Data on construction deaths has been kept by several different agencies -- the Center for Disease Control, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the National Center for Health Statistics, the National Safety Council among others -- at different times and often simultaneously, using different criteria and different methods. The data that is available, starting about 1985, does not seem to be consistent in what it is measuring and how. Categories of data are introduced or dropped as needs arise, and entire systems of reporting are revamped as they were in 2002 under the North American Industry Classification System/Standard Industrial Classification (NAICS/SIC) to bring the reporting of the parties to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) under a common standard.
Nancy Stout-Wiegand wrote in "Fatal Occupational Injuries in US Industries, 1984: Comparison of Two National Surveillance Systems",
Estimates of the number of workers killed on the job vary widely and are based on a variety of incomplete data sources. For example, the number of traumatic occupational fatalities in 1984 was estimated at 3,740 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,960 by National Center for Health Statistics, and 11,500 by the National Safety Council. While these discrepancies can be attributed in part to differences in methodologies and definitions, they illustrate the need for more definitive data.
While speaking of occupational deaths in general, the assessment carried over to construction where the BLS, for example, reported 660 construction deaths versus 906 in the 1984 NIOSH / NTOF statistics, a difference of almost forty percent. In recent years, efforts have been made to consolidate record keeping under NIOSH and the BLS, but there remains a question of whether OSHA is acting on the information being gathered. The Center for Justice & Democracy wrote in Deadly Trade: Construction Safety in Illinois Since Repeal of the Structural Work Act (pdf):
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does a poor job of ensuring workplace safety.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is supposed to assure the safety and health of America’s construction workers - but it doesn’t...
There are not enough OSHA inspectors to enforce worker-protection laws in the United States
The dollar amounts and number of federal and state OSHA penalties are trivial, giving employers no incentive to comply with health and safety rules
At the behest of the Bush administration, OSHA has pursued a "voluntary compliance strategy," reaching agreements with businesses and industry associations to police themselves. Such voluntary programs often fail to address specific workplace hazards or have any enforcement power.
Rulemaking at OSHA has ground to a halt. Under Bush, OSHA has eliminated dozens of existing regulations, repeatedly delayed the adoption of others and pulled countless safety and health rules from its regulatory agenda.
OSHA has ignored evidence that the annual number of workplace injuries and illnesses is much higher than what’s reported by employers. Instead, agency officials continue to rely on employer reports of workplace injuries as evidence that agency policies are effective.
Since FY 2001, OSHA’s budget has been cut by $25 million. The President’s proposed 2008 budget for OSHA is $490 million. Of that amount, 27 percent ($134.1 million) is allocated to compliance assistance programs for employers. Since taking office, the Bush administration has increased the budget for such programs by nearly $29 million. In contrast, every year the White House has tried to decrease or eliminate funding for OSHA worker safety and health training and education programs
Since 2001, OSHA has eliminated almost 200 full-time positions. The number of federal OSHA enforcement staff has been reduced by 8 percent, while staff levels for the development of safety and health standards have decreased by 17 percent/
Moreover, one author who has written about OSHA has said that it is accepted OSHA policy that a number of significant and deadly OSHA violations and the resulting penalties are negotiated down, reclassified, and even deleted completely.
OSHA is better than nothing but far from perfect. They are, after decades of Republican mis-rule, defunding, and under-staffing, far more reactive than proactive, especially where construction is concerned, primarily investigating after an accident or complaint rather than making routine inspections in the interest of preventing accidents. A June, 2008 congressional hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Labor criticized the agency for failing to adopt a crane safety standard four years after it was developed by the rule-making committee, as well as additional un-implemented standards such as Confined Spaces in Construction, Silica Exposure, and Lockout-Tagout. (Archived webcast)
Mark H. Ayers, President Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO, testifying before that hearing, asserted:
Research entities can produce useful information, and unions can push for, and even bargain for safety and health provisions as part of the collective bargaining, but both as a legal and practical matter, employers are ultimately responsible for the safety and health of employees, and Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for enforcing construction safety and health laws. In our opinion, both are failing us at this time.
OSHA has been in existence now for 39 years. Twenty-seven of those years have been spend under Republican administrations that were disinterested at best, hostile at worst. We who are close to the construction industry can only hope that the Obama administration's big plate has room for the rejuvenation of OSHA.
In the end, I escaped Construction Summer with only one small disfigurement, a small chunk of enamel spalled off the inside cusp of a tooth when I tried to impress a girl several years my senior at one of our project-completion beer bashes by demonstrating my ability, in the pre-twist-cap era, to open a bottle of beer with my teeth. It wasn't readily visible to the casual observer, just a personal reminder -- marked by a sharp edge readily found with the tip of my tongue and an occasional excruciating cold sensitivity for years after -- of the spectacular stupidity of the human male in the throes of a testosterone fog. She did not go to bed with me.
Past installments of "How Regulation came to be":
How Regulation came to be: 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act
How Regulation came to be: The Iroquois Theater Fire
How Regulation came to be: Radium Girls - Part I
How Regulation came to be: Radium Girls - Part II
How Regulation came to be: Radium Girls - Part III