Sunday, May 4, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Two months ago, after a string of tragic construction fatalities shook New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave an address to the city’s building inspectors.
“Your job is to save lives,” Bloomberg said. “That means that it’s your duty to make sure that anyone reporting to any construction job ... shouldn’t have to worry about going home safely that night.
“And let me make it as clear as I can: Simply shrugging your shoulders and saying, ‘Well, after all, construction work is a dangerous occupation,’ is behavior that will not be tolerated from anyone.”
In Clark County, where 10 construction workers have died in accidents on the Las Vegas Strip in the past 17 months, no one has uttered words as forceful as Bloomberg’s. But last week, local officials did begin to question whether government could do more to protect workers. New York City is one place they can look for answers.
Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani and Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Ross said Thursday they will bring together representatives of the construction industry and government officials to discuss safety. (The Strip is in unincorporated Clark County, south of Las Vegas city limits.)
“I’m looking for some concrete recommendations about what local governments can do,” Giunchigliani said.
The lesson from New York is that Clark County has options, even if vast distinctions exist between the politics, government structure and building density of the two urban areas.
Unlike cities and counties in Nevada, New York does not leave workplace safety issues to state or federal OSHAs exclusively. Instead, the city asserts its own authority to inspect construction work sites, order safety improvements and shut down projects that fail to comply.
After a series of construction accidents, including a crane collapse in Manhattan that killed seven people in March, the city’s Department of Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster resigned in the face of intense criticism from elected leaders, despite her efforts to improve safety over the years. She told The New York Times the fatalities had been “wrenching.”
In Southern Nevada, until Giunchigliani and Ross spoke up, local officials had said little about the rash of deaths on the Strip.
The only response from Nevada’s elected leaders came from state legislators who said they would call hearings when the Legislature reconvenes next year to review the conduct of Nevada OSHA. The Sun reported in March that Nevada OSHA has levied only small fines on contractors for violations contributing to the deaths. In some cases, citations have been withdrawn altogether.
Local government leaders saw no role for themselves in the issue, in part because local governments in Nevada have no responsibility for workplace safety. That task falls exclusively to Nevada OSHA, which works with limited staff and budget to inspect every work site in the state.
Clark County did begin recently to push building inspectors to investigate building code violations more aggressively during construction. But the codes they enforce do not regulate construction safety. Rather, they ensure that buildings are safe once completed — that they do not contain structural flaws, fire hazards and so on.
As Development Services Department spokeswoman Dawn Rivard said, “When inspectors go out to inspect a building, they’re worried about the safety of occupants or future occupants of that structure.”
Giunchigliani says she wants to consider expanding those duties. “We’ve allowed as a local government a pressure to be put on jobs where safety is not as prominent or discussed, and it’s a weakness,” Giunchigliani said. “That’s something we need to look at.”
New York City faced that issue long ago. As in Nevada, New York state’s OSHA has limited reach.
“OSHA doesn’t have the resources to contend with the problem” of commercial construction safety in New York City, said Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee of Occupational Safety and Health, a workplace safety advocacy organization. “What happens here is that in the guise of public safety, the buildings department has been able to deal with what is a gaping hole.”
The term “guise of public safety” is an important detail. OSHA law bars local governments from usurping state OSHA oversight of workplace safety.
New York City derives its authority over workplace safety from its broad responsibility for public safety. In densely built New York, a construction accident could very well harm not only a worker but also someone walking down the street or in a building next door.
But more specifically, “the Building Department has taken the interpretation of the public to mean that construction workers are defined as the public,” said Lou Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers Association, an organization that represents union contractors in New York. “It hasn’t always been that way, but the code is written so broadly the buildings commissioner has almost close to police powers when you talk about construction.”
That interpretation translates into a variety of city laws and enforcement tactics. Although the Building Department has been criticized as too weak, historically corrupt and inconsistent, it nonetheless provides more stringent oversight than exists in Las Vegas.
New York City construction safety inspectors are required to visit high-rise construction sites at least once a week looking for safety hazards and violations. The city requires that every high-rise construction project have a safety manager, and requires safety training for every job superintendent covering such issues as fall protection.
After the recent construction crane accident, the city inspected every similar crane in the city, and after workers died from a series of scaffolding falls, the city inspected every scaffold and created a task force to draft new scaffold rules.
The city issues fines for safety violations. Even more threatening to contractors, New York inspectors can stop work at job sites for weeks. That can cost contractors on a major project $250,000 a day or even more, Coletti said.
The threat pushes contractors and unions to pay more attention to worker safety, construction safety experts say.
“We had a joint meeting this winter between the New York City building trades unions and our contractors and that was a major topic this year,” said Jim Melius, an administrator of the New York State Laborers’ Health and Safety Trust Fund. “We were talking about how we improve safety to avoid these costly shutdowns.”
Although New York City is perhaps the most active local government on workplace safety issues, AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario said other cities and counties are considering ways to assist and strengthen their states’ OSHAs.
“They could be having eyes and ears on the ground,” Seminario said. “Nothing would prevent that from happening at all.”
Clark County could try to establish that worker safety and public safety can be the same thing. Although the Strip is not nearly as densely developed as Manhattan, the county could argue that construction sites could put some members of the public at risk, including building inspectors who enter the work sites, legal experts said.
County Counsel Mary Ann Miller said such an ordinance theoretically would enable the county to become involved in overseeing worker safety. “We have the authority to adopt and enforce a building code, so if certain safety measures were necessary to enforce the building code, we could do that,” Miller said.
Another legal option Miller and others cited would be to direct county building inspectors to find and report safety violations to OSHA itself, effectively multiplying the state agency’s reach.
Legal jurisdiction aside, a big obstacle to local safety enforcement in Nevada appears to be money. If the county is to help police workplace safety in any meaningful way, it would likely need more inspectors. “It would take a different focus and a different mandate,” County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury said. “Our building department is stretched thin.”
But Commission Chairman Rory Reid said he wants to at least consider asking inspectors to take a somewhat more proactive approach to construction safety.
“I think one thing we need to do is make sure we’re coordinating with those that have a direct responsibility in this area, and I’m not sure how we do it,” Reid said.
“We’re all laymen,” Reid said. “I’m not a construction expert. I need somebody who knows more than me to tell me what role the county can play to make construction safer.”
New York construction safety officials say they’re happy to take calls.