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After spending the past few months developing a COVID-19 emergency temporary standard, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has turned its attention to safety issues in the construction industry.
While this initiative centers on trenching and fall protection hazards in Colorado, experts say it could indicate how OSHA under the Biden administration approaches safety investigations and enforcements.
In early June, OSHA announced that it would begin a “Weekend Work” enforcement program targeting construction sites on Saturdays and Sundays in a “proactive effort to identify hazardous worksites and to ensure workers end their shifts safely.” This effort specifically seeks to address potential fall protection violations — the most-cited OSHA violation for a decade — and trenching violations, which have also consistently been named by the agency as among the top construction violations.
This program “is really consistent with the direction we’re seeing the Biden administration go — a heavier regulation, pro-union type approach to all its labor initiatives,” said Ryan Markham, a construction law attorney in the Denver office of law firm Cotney LLP.
Worker safety advocates such as Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, Boston-based co-executive director of the National Council of Occupational Safety and Health, say there are situations in which so-called “day laborers,” or unskilled temporary workers often hired on the spot, may be working on weekends without the necessary training and protections.
“That is what we need from OSHA, going out into communities when employers can’t hide what their real practices are, sending the message,” she said.
Whether serious accidents are occurring on weekends and not being reported may be open to debate. According to Pinnacol Assurance, Colorado’s largest workers compensation insurer, 20% of workplace accidents occur on Wednesdays, with just 3% taking place on Saturdays and less than a percent on Sundays.
Michael Gifford, president of Associated General Contractors of Colorado, said his membership, which is predominately general and specialty contractors engaged in large projects such as hotels, hospitals and major office buildings, typically don’t operate their job sites on the weekends.
“We have a fairly low accident rate, and this isn’t something that really is needed,” he said of the weekend inspections. He noted that the association and OSHA leadership in Colorado meet quarterly to address construction safety concerns.
Mr. Gifford said the new inspections “might be aimed at other parts of the market” and that a more effective way of enhancing construction safety would be “if (OSHA) collaborates with us and tells us what the areas of concerns are” instead of making surprise inspections.
“The message we send to all of our clients is to work safely all of the time — just because it’s the weekend, it doesn’t mean to take off safety or relax it,” Mr. Markham said. “(Before), we knew government workers were not going to work on the weekend, and this kind of puts everyone on notice. If you’re being unsafe, there’s a chance they’re going to come out and cite you.”
Louise Esola contributed to this report.