Thursday, July 24, 2008 | 2 a.m.
High-profile senators including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Edward M. Kennedy have urged the Bush administration to enforce safety regulations that could prevent construction deaths similar to those that have occurred on the Las Vegas Strip.
In a pointed letter to Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, nine Democratic senators said safety flooring or netting beneath construction workers often represents the last chance to save lives if their safety harnesses fail. Safety flooring had been required until 2002, when the Bush administration began allowing companies to save money by forgoing the flooring if workers used safety harnesses.
“There is no acceptable rationale for a policy that encourages contractors to cut costs at the expense of workers’ safety and lives,” the senators wrote. “The use of both safety harnesses and decking or netting is critical and federal inspectors should enforce rules requiring both of them.”
The letter calls on Chao to tell contractors nationwide within 30 days that inspectors in the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration will begin enforcing the safety flooring requirement.
Safety flooring has grown into a national issue since late March, when an investigation by the Las Vegas Sun found that construction workers on the Strip had died in falls that would have been broken if safety flooring or netting had been in place.
The Ironworkers Union officials in Las Vegas initially blamed the accidents on the workers themselves. But after reading the Sun’s accounts, the union’s national headquarters took up the cause of safety flooring and began demanding change.
The issue caught the eye of lawmakers in both houses of Congress. The brother-in-law of Las Vegas construction worker Harold Billingsley testified last month before a House committee that his life might have been spared had there been temporary decking to catch him when he fell.
Billingsley was without a harness when he plummeted 59 feet at MGM Mirage’s $9.2 billion CityCenter project in October.
As public pressure built to improve safety, the Ironworkers local backed away from its contention that workers alone were responsible for the deaths and joined other unions in calling for safer working conditions.
Workers at CityCenter shut down the site for a day by walking off the job last month. Shortly afterward, Nevada OSHA declared it would require all contractors in the state to begin providing the safety flooring or netting.
The letter from the nine senators essentially expands the Nevada issue into a national concern.
The driving force was Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, chairwoman of a workplace safety subcommittee of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Murray’s staff said Wednesday the senator was moved to act in part by the Sun’s reports on the Las Vegas deaths.
In the letter, the senators wrote that they found it difficult to understand OSHA’s decision to allow construction companies to do away with temporary netting. OSHA’s current policy “seems designed to minimize costs — not maximize safety,” they wrote.
“Our nation’s construction workers are in danger. They are laboring on increasingly complex projects, and workers and contractors alike are under pressure to bring those projects in on time and within budget,” the letter said. “The number of fatalities in recent months is growing evidence that workers’ safety is being sacrificed for speed as well as cost.”
Other senators who signed the letter were Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Charles Schumer of New York, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
“I hope the Department of Labor will take this request seriously and will take the necessary steps to ensure that existing safety standards are upheld and properly enforced,” Reid said in a statement. “As we have seen this is an important issue in Nevada and across the country.”
A spokesman for Obama, the Illinois senator who is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said: “Given recent accidents in the construction industry, it is clear that OSHA needs to do more to protect workers.”
The letter to Chao also presses OSHA to move quickly on proposed regulations for construction crane operations. Three of the 12 deaths in Nevada involved cranes, but none was as catastrophic as recent crane failures in New York and Miami. The senators cited news reports that 72 workers nationwide died in crane-related accidents in 2006.
Workplace watchdogs have long complained that the Bush administration has stalled on releasing the proposed regulations for crane safety, which were expected four years ago.
Nevada’s crane safety regulations are tougher than those in many other states, but could be beefed up further, depending on the details of the proposed new rules, experts said.
The senators asked Chao to explain why the proposed crane regulations have been delayed and when they will be produced. They also asked for the secretary’s plan for increasing construction crane site inspections and compiling timely information about crane safety.
“Our nation’s construction workers and their families should be confident that when they go to work, they will return home safely,” the letter said. “American construction workers have waited too long of OSHA to do its job.”
Clinton issued a statement saying the number of deadly crane accidents in her home state of New York and elsewhere is “sobering, and it is critical that we act immediately to protect the safety of workers and residents and prevent future tragedies.”
Labor Department spokeswoman Sharon Worthy said updating the cranes and derrick standard “is a top regulatory priority of OSHA.” She said OSHA has increased its focus on large construction sites and has officers in Las Vegas to work with state OSHA officials on compliance.
But Steve Redlinger, spokesman for the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council, said he doubts regulations will change until there is a new president in the White House.
“We think it’s a little bit sad that senators have to go to the extent to write a letter to tell the Department of Labor to enforce its own standards,” he said.
Peg Seminario, safety and health director at the AFL-CIO in Washington, said the letter is “clearly raising the profile” of construction safety issues.
“The senators are sending a clear message to Secretary Chao that the administration needs to do more to address construction safety problems,” she said. “There’s increasing and heightening concerns about the state of the construction industry in the United States, as we’ve seen in all the deaths in Nevada and the crane collapses around the country.”
Twelve workers have died in construction accidents on the Strip in not quite 20 months, more than occurred during the entire 1990s, when Las Vegas essentially reinvented itself architecturally by building a series of megaresorts.
Six of the recent deaths occurred at CityCenter, the largest private commercial project in U.S. history, representing more than one-fourth of all construction under way in the current $32 billion building boom on the Strip.