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Contractor Death Highlights Responsibility Issues

On May 19th, 59-year-old construction worker Okesene Faasalele was working to demolish a railroad bridge spanning California’s 91 Freeway. The section of the bridge he was harnessed to buckled, swinging him to the highway lanes below. Struck by metal debris, Faasalele did not survive the fall.

The demolition was a project of California’s Department of Transportation. But Faasalele, a Samoan immigrant who had lived in Long Beach, California for twenty years, wasn’t a state employee. He worked for a contractor, Hard Rock Equipment Rentals.

At first glance, you’d probably guess that most workers you see fixing bridges, paving streets, or installing sewer lines are public employees. In fact, many – like Faasalele – are employed by private firms. They are awarded public contracts, and paid with taxpayer dollars, based on a bidding process that typically includes cost and performance on previous jobs – but often does not consider the contractor’s compliance with safety regulations.

In addition, when a project passes from state agency to contractors to various subcontractors, there’s often more finger-pointing than accountability when something goes wrong on a worksite.

It doesn’t have to be that way. National COSH and our local partners are working to encourage state and local governments to ensure that employers at every level carry out their legal responsibility to provide a safe working environment, including all necessary training and safety equipment.

Making progress in Maryland: National COSH’s Responsible Contractor campaign also urges state and local governments to take a firm’s safety record into account when awarding public contracts. Maryland took a step in the right direction on May 15th, when Governor Martin O’Malley signed House Bill 951 into law. Under the legislation, a workgroup — including the advocacy organization Public Citizen — will make recommendations for a “prequalification” system for state contractors, based on their occupational safety and health history.

The legislation was introduced following a 2012 Public Citizen report that detailed how Maryland construction workers suffered 18,600 accidents and 55 fatalities from 2008 to 2010. On top of the human suffering experienced by affected workers and their families, medical bills, lost productivity and other costs associated with these incidents cost the Maryland economy $712.8 million over three years.

In New York City, worker safety advocates are pushing for passage of the Safe Jobs Act (Intro 1169), which would “make sure that developers receiving city funding use approved programs in order to improve their workers’ safety,” according to Council Member Karen Koslowitz.

California hiring new inspectors: In California, Faaselele’s tragic death was just one of a series of recent incidents in which workers have fallen to their deaths. In response, CAL/OSHA – California’s Occupational Safety and Health regulatory body – is sending inspectors to construction sites around the state, checking for proper use of “safety railings, personal fall protection devices and equipment, and tie-offs,” according to the CAL/OSHA Reporter. “Expect vigorous enforcement,” the newsletter reports.

Or maybe not. As detailed by WORKSAFE, one of our local COSH partners, CAL/OSHA has been chronically understaffed for more than two decades. At present, however, the agency is in the process of hiring 25 new workplace safety inspectors.

Skimping on safety is dangerous, whether at public agencies or in private sector companies. As more of our public infrastructure is built and maintained by private companies, responsible contracting is more important than ever, to ensure that all stakeholders are focused on preventing workplace hazards.

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