By Richard Robbins
In the construction industry, there is a battle that takes place each workday between OSHA, the agency that governs workplace safety in the United States, and the companies over which it has jurisdiction. On one side are companies that must find ways to thrive in industries that are often competitive. These companies want to stay in business at the very least, but their ultimate goal is to obviously make a decent profit. While they may be legitimately concerned about employee safety and overall welfare, leaders of many of these companies see OSHA as a major threat to their bottom line and to their survival.
One of the most common complaints from business owners about OSHA is its ability to fine exorbitant amounts for issues that can be difficult to control. Dan Phillips, the owner of a small Kansas-based roofing company who was fined $4,600 (reduced from $23,000 because his was a small business) recently because one of his employees temporarily unlatched his safety rope on the job within site of an OSHA inspector, explained that “If you watch a construction site long enough, someone is going to do something stupid.”
There is no doubt that OSHA’s existence has made the workplace safer by essentially saving people from themselves or from the dangers of their work environments, but at what cost? From my own experience, it’s obvious that the nature of construction workers does not normally prioritize complying with safety codes that feel to be silly and unwarranted. Those responsible for the safety and compliance of their crews are at the mercy of employees who often think that, for instance, the OSHA requirement that they wear OSHA-compliant safety harnesses when working six feet above the ground on a construction site, doesn’t apply to them and their risk level. It is impossible to police those who choose not to follow the boss’ orders, even when they’ve been trained.
Violations of OSHA regulations exist on almost any major construction site, but most of those infractions are not brought to light until an accident attracts the attention of an OSHA investigation, as in the recent case of a welder working for Metal Shredders, an Ohio-based recycling company, who was electrocuted after stepping on a live electrical line. The ensuing OSHA investigation concluded that the company should be fined $115,000 because, among other violations they found, they didn’t properly protect the welder from the electrical line. OSHA also determined that Metal Shredders’ parent company, Cohen Brothers, should be fined $21,000 for not training their personnel properly on how to protect against electrical hazards similar to what killed the welder in this fatal incident, which opened the doors for an OSHA investigation of the companies safety history and procedures.
The long history of conflicting interests of regulating governing bodies and entrepreneurs is sure to continue. However, efforts on the part of OSHA with local and national business leaders to cooperate and focus more on training and safety empowerment rather than the antagonistic “fine first, ask questions later” relationship that has historically existed have made some progress. OSHA has a training institute that aims to provide tuition-based training courses for construction employees, managers, and others responsible for ensuring compliance.
There’s no question, owners of construction-related businesses have to a lot of things to worry about. The possibility of OSHA fines and other aspects of maintaining safe work environments can be impossible to balance with productivity and controlling costs.