Tuesday, June 10, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
The ironworkers union stepped up efforts Monday to persuade the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to require builders to provide temporary flooring or netting beneath workers.
At a news conference in Las Vegas, the union made a request that FedOSHA follow California’s — and, most recently, Nevada’s — lead and rescind a federal directive interpreting the agency’s standards for safety flooring. That directive allows builders to avoid providing the flooring under certain conditions.
The union’s public statement coincided with the visit to Las Vegas of Ed Foulke, FedOSHA director, who is in town to deliver a speech to safety engineers. Foulke also will meet with construction companies engaged in the current building boom on the Strip.
The union’s public entreaty also seeks to capitalize on a surge in public attention to construction safety in the week since a walkout by workers shut down the CityCenter and Cosmopolitan projects for a day.
“We are outraged by news that Mr. Foulke would come to Las Vegas to pontificate about fatalities and workplace safety matters when he has refused to rescind OSHA compliance directives that have been at the center of controversy in Las Vegas,” said Joe Standley, president of the Western District Council of Ironworkers, which covers Nevada.
“The working men and women that build America and those of us who represent them look to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to enforce the safety regulations for our protection,” Standley said.
Federal safety laws enforced locally by Nevada OSHA have long required that employers provide safety netting or temporary flooring to catch workers who fall. Those rules remained official law even after new erection standards were adopted in 2001 after many years of negotiation.
But in 2002, FedOSHA issued an interpretation without enlisting public comment or debate. The agency would no longer enforce the requirement for netting or flooring if employers required workers to wear safety harnesses, which are attached to cables that workers tie off from above.
FedOSHA contends the two forms of protection are redundant and unnecessary.
But officials at the union insist that the decision by FedOSHA undermines safety and say ironworker death rates have risen since word spread that contractors didn’t have to provide safety floors.
“We were shocked and disappointed that OSHA would issue compliance directives that removed safety provisions for the steel erection industry that is considered a high-hazard industry,” Standley said to a handful of TV crews and other media members gathered on the 26th floor of Bally’s.
He was flanked by several local ironworker union leaders as well as Steve Ross, secretary-treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Union, and Jim Stanley, a former deputy assistant secretary of labor who worked in construction standards at FedOSHA.
Union officials who work with Standley have been trying for years to persuade Foulke and others at FedOSHA to rescind the directive.
The issue received a bump in attention from the union when it became clear that at least two of the 11 workers who have died in the past 18 months on the Las Vegas Strip were ironworkers whose falls could have been broken if decking or netting had been in place.
After meeting with officials from the Western District Council, Nevada OSHA announced last month that it would not follow federal orders and would instead require contractors to provide decking or netting beneath employees.
In making the decision, Nevada OSHA concluded the directive weakened safety standards by increasing fall distances, raising the possibility of injuries from falling objects and making it more difficult for rescuers to reach the upper levels of high-rise buildings in an emergency.
Standley said the union has not yet asked to meet with Foulke during the OSHA director’s Las Vegas visit.
The Sun could not reach a FedOSHA representative after work hours.