Sunday, May 11, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Citing the deaths of 10 workers on the Las Vegas Strip, a House panel will hold a hearing to review construction safety standards and the conduct of government agencies responsible for overseeing workplace safety.
California Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey said the workforce protections subcommittee she leads plans to hold a hearing this summer to investigate the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s regulations of the construction industry.
“What’s happening in Las Vegas and other major cities, including New York ... there’s this need to move faster” so that the buildings are completed by deadlines, Woolsey said. “It’s taking its toll and it’s killing or injuring our workers — all so some big buildings can get built quickly.”
The Las Vegas Sun has reported that construction workers on the Strip say pressure to work faster during the current $32 billion building boom forces them and their bosses to take shortcuts, often at the expense of safety. Ten workers have died in Strip construction projects in the past 17 months.
Those deaths and others elsewhere raise a question, Woolsey said. “Do we need to change the regulations or do we need to make sure the regulations are being followed?”
Woolsey’s subcommittee will review the adequacy of OSHA safety standards in the construction industry. Her panel falls under the House Education and Labor Committee led by fellow California Rep. George Miller, a strong advocate of OSHA reforms. The staff of Miller’s committee “has been monitoring the situation in Las Vegas,” a spokesman said.
“The failure to adequately protect these workers is a direct result of an agency that doesn’t dedicate enough resources to inspect most job sites nor the political will to hold employers accountable when they put workers at risk,” committee spokesman Aaron Albright said. “Our committee has seen similar patterns all across the country.”
On the Senate side, the health and labor committee led by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is examining whether regulators are being aggressive enough in enforcing existing safety standards and in punishing contractors who disregard those standards.
Kennedy and Woolsey have introduced identical bills to increase penalties on employers for workplace safety violations. The bills have been introduced in past congressional sessions but had little traction until Democrats rose to power in 2007.
Democrats take issue with what they see as the Bush administration’s preference for a voluntary industry approach to safety, which they say has left federal OSHA operating at less than full speed.
The agency has issued relatively few new safety standards under the Bush administration, and has withdrawn or moved slowly on issuing construction standards to regulate workplace safety, congressional aides and labor union representatives say.
Another issue is the size of fines for violations and OSHA’s budget for enforcement, both of which have failed to keep pace with inflation.
Kennedy said in a brief interview last week that the problems in OSHA lie with “both the substance and the process.”
“The substance is completely inadequate in terms of the penalties, and the failure to enforce it in a vigorous and substantial way,” Kennedy said.
The Protect America’s Workers Act, as the Kennedy and Woolsey bills are called, would increase fines on employers for workplace safety violations and give workers greater recourse for appeal. It would also raise criminal penalties for the first time since the original act was approved in 1970, imposing felony prison terms of up to 10 years on repeat offenders.
The legislation also would create a new minimum financial penalty for worker deaths. The Sun reported that in many of the Strip construction deaths, Nevada OSHA has reduced or even completely withdrawn findings of wrongdoing by contractors.
For example, after an ironworker fell 59 feet to his death, Nevada OSHA imposed $13,500 in fines for safety failures by the contractor. But after meeting with the contractor, OSHA withdrew all citations and fines.
The legislation would still let companies negotiate over citations. But if a violation were upheld, employers would face a minimum fine of $20,000 when deaths occur from serious workplace violations or $50,000 for deaths due to willful violations.
Nevada Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley said she had been reluctant to support increases in fines without broader OSHA overhauls to ensure the agency would have the funding it needs to do its job. But she signed on to the bill last week “given the situation in Nevada and the seriousness of the problem,” she said in an interview.
“OSHA has been flatlined since this administration took over,” Berkley said. “How many people have to die at a construction site ... before you realize you can’t continue like this and pretend to the American public that you’re actually protecting them?”
Nevada’s Republicans in Washington, Reps. Jon Porter and Dean Heller and Sen. John Ensign, declined to comment for this story.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has announced that his office will join in a meeting with developers, labor representatives and OSHA officials to ensure that safety standards are being followed and enforced. That meeting is being put together by Steve Ross, a Las Vegas city councilman who also heads the local building and construction trades council.
Reid’s office said the senator thinks “Congress needs to look at the entire situation — that includes compliance and enforcement of existing regulations — and expand both where necessary,” a spokesman said.
Construction industry groups and key Republican lawmakers think any legislation to bolster fines moves the agency in a wrong direction, toward penalizing violators rather than working with contractors to prevent accidents from happening.
Kelly Knott of the Associated General Contractors, the industry’s major trade organization, said in an e-mail that her group focuses on preventing workplace accidents through training grants and encouragement, including annual worker safety awards.
“Protecting America’s Workers Act does not incorporate measures for preventing accidents and instead focuses on action following a tragedy,” she wrote.
Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, a former business owner who is the ranking Republican on the Senate health and labor committee, thinks the Democratic-backed bill is “more punishment than prevention,” his spokesman said.
“Senator Enzi’s concern about this is not so much that he is against adjusting penalties and fines,” spokesman Craig Orfield said. “He wants to bring something to the table that’s going to encourage safer practices to prevent accidents in the first place.”
Enzi has introduced an alternative measure in past sessions of Congress and may do so again this year.
Although the political climate in Washington has shifted toward greater oversight by Congress of the administration in this and other areas, the Protect America’s Workers Act still faces a long road. No Republicans have signed on to support it.
One Republican committee aide said Republican leadership is committed to holding the line on pro-union bills and sees them as a way to define differences between the two parties in an election year.
Woolsey said part of her interest in pressing forward is to lay the groundwork for the next administration, which she thinks will be a Democratic one more willing to make reforms.
Democratic presidential front-runner Sen. Barack Obama is a strong supporter of the bill, saying OSHA has not been successful under the Bush administration, an Obama spokesman said. Obama thinks “OSHA must have the requisite authority to impose meaningful penalties for noncompliance, particularly in the case of serious, repeat, and egregious violations,” his spokesman wrote by e-mail.
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama’s rival for the Democratic nomination, was an early backer of the bill and said in a campaign interview with a union that “too many workers are injured on the job and too few workers are protected by OSHA.”
Sen. John McCain’s voting record in the Senate has been less friendly to union-backed worker protection measures. His office said it would be unable to comment for this story.
On a related issue, Woolsey is behind a bill that passed the House last year requiring OSHA to issue new rules limiting worker exposure to diacetyl, a chemical used in food flavorings linked to severe lung disease known as “popcorn lung” because it first arose in workers at factories producing microwave popcorn.
That bill passed largely along party lines, although among Nevada representatives, Porter joined Berkley and other Democrats in voting for it. Heller voted against.