Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Out of Sight, But Never Out of Danger

Running AFSCME's health and safety program was never dull. You were always dealing with hazardous work that no one ever saw or thought about. The deadliest jobs among AFCME members were in highway work zones, most often for those who worked at night -- getting hit by oncoming traffic, or too often, getting hit by work equipment.

This article in the Tampa Tribune addresses many of those hazards:
Before midnight, under a span of Interstate 275, a bulldozer and 160-foot crane belched diesel fumes as work crews labored to widen the highway.

The black and blue smoke rose above the workers' heads, above temporary spotlights, then disappeared into the darkness.

Most of the renovations on the I-275 junction with Interstate 4 are performed during the day. But when they involve lifting heavy girders over crowded roads, those roads must be closed. And that means night work to men accustomed to working in daylight. They start about 7 p.m. and head for home just as the sun is rising.

For those men, the darker hours don't bring rest and relaxation; they bring sweat and sore muscles.

Every year, about 100 road crew workers die on the job in the United States, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. Another 20,000 are injured. Working at night, in the shadows of floodlights, increases the safety risk.
But there's one major difference between these workers and the ones I used to work for. These aren't public employees, they're private contractors. More and more of the fatalities I see in roads and public works are private contractor employees, rather than public employees. Like refineries and other manufacturing jobs, employers seem to be contracting out the most dangerous work.

Ironically, in some states, contracting out public employee jobs can theoretically make them safer. In Florida, for example, public employees aren't covered by OSHA. It's perfectly legal for a public employee to dig a 15 foot trench without any shoring, whereas a private contractor could be cited by OSHA.

Of course, this is only theoretical, as most of the contractors aren't organized and probably have less health and safety consciousness than more unionized public employees and are less likely to file an OSHA complaint. And then there's this factor that I never knew about:
Andy Carroll, a civil engineer, has worked on the I-275 widening since it began in October. Although he generally works days, Carroll switches to nights when those projects require engineering.

Last week, he came out to observe the crews as they unloaded massive I-beam girders, as thick as 2 inches and as long as 100 feet, from the backs of tractor-trailers. The girders were laid flat on concrete posts along the downtown/Jefferson Street exit on southbound I-275. The girders were bolted together to form long spans. Those steel spans will be hoisted with a crane and set atop T-shaped, concrete pillars to form the structure of a bridge.

"We're not going to shut down the interstate for that,'' Carroll said. "We'll just shut down the on-ramp.''

Carroll said he hates the closures as much as motorists. They can cost him money.

His employer's contract with the state lets him close the roads as many as 60 times over the four-year life of the $73.5 million project. If the company, Granite Construction, closes the roads less than that, it receives $15,000 per unused closure. If the closures go over 60, the company owes the state $15,000 each time.
What kind of incentive system is this? The less safe the job, the more money the company makes. I wonder if the guys working out on the highways, inches away from speeding traffic in the middle of the night know about the terms of the contract.