Tuesday, February 15, 2005

OSHA Issue Trenching Info Cards. A Good Start?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has safety information pocket card, Safety in Excavations or Trenches, to "help workers and employers understand safe trenching practices and the federal requirements for construction excavation safety. The cards are printed in English on one side and Spanish on the other."

I certainly have nothing against OSHA putting out these cards. They're nice, they're clear and they have pictures. More knowledge about deadly workplace hazards can't be a bad thing. But I do have some questions about this endeavor.
  1. Is lack of knowledge among construction companies really the root of the problem here? Maybe sometimes, but we've seen numerous cases where workers have been killed in an unprotected trench while unused trench boxes sit, unused, a few feet away. And we've seen plenty of cases where, even after killing a worker (or more than one worker), construction companies continue to put workers into unsafe trenches.

  2. Are these cards intended for employers and supervisors or for workers, or both?
  3. If they're meant primarily for supervisors and company owners, then I go back to my first question.

    If they're meant for workers, what are they supposed to do with them once they've read and understood them? Show them to their supervisors, hoping they'll say "Oh my God, thanks for showing this to me, I'll fix it right away?" Or are they really meant to tell workers "If you see an unprotected trench, and your boss won't make it safe, don't go down into it. It could kill you!"

  4. If they're telling workers to refuse imminently dangerous work, how are they communicating that?
  5. Generally, workers -- especially unorganized workers -- don't have the power to refuse dangerous jobs -- and still hope to remain employed for long. While court interpretations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act do give workers the right to refuse imminently dangerous work, the new trenching cards say nothing about that right -- or any rights for that matter, even the right to call OSHA for an inspection.

    If you're an undocumented immigrant worker, you're not likely to stand up for your right to call OSHA, much less refuse to work -- even if you know what your rights are. And even if you know about the right to refuse, and exercise it, the odds of getting your job back in any reasonable period of time are slim to none.

    Acting OSHA head Jonathan Snare says that the purpose of the cards is "to provide these workers the tools they need to stay safe on the job."

    Not really. The purpose of the cards is to provide workers with knowledge they need to determine whether a trench is safe or not; the tools they need to stay safe are the knowledge of their rights and the ability to exercise those rights.

    Scott Schneider, Director of Safety and Health for the Laborers union points out that union sites are generally safer -- because members are better trained, and better able to speak up if they see unsafe conditions. Of all the trenching fatalities in 2003, only six percent were union members.
    Since, nationwide, about 20 percent of construction work is union, you'd expect union fatalities to be near 20 percent. This figure shows that union jobs are safer. It indicates that supervisors and workers on union sites are better trained. It also suggests that the union offers the kind of protection that workers need to speak up about safety issues on the worksite.
    Schneider is on OSHA's Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH) which came out with the following recommendations:
    1. Improve training in evacuation hazard and awareness assessment for OSHA Inspectors and Compliance Assistance Specialists

    2. Target tougher enforcement, designed to reach small employers and those that have previous trench safety citations

    3. Improve training and share training resources

    4. Increase the frequency and quality of all training for contractors, aiming at field management and supervisory personnel, jobsite competent persons and skilled and unskilled workers

    5. Get help from other key stakeholders such as municipalities, police, fire and rescue, permit examiners, One Call Centers, owners and construction users, insurance companies, safety and risk management organizations, trade journals and learning facilities

    6. Start a public health-style campaign to improve upon current marketing, public relations and outreach efforts to improve excavation safety while also counteracting misperceptions among Hispanic workers that OSHA is part of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

The cards are a start, but OSHA has a long way to go.