David Michaels

A sluggish rule-making process has stymied efforts to improve construction-site safety, officials from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and union groups say. But construction industry sources note that, before going into effect, the rules need to be carefully considered and reflect the opinions of all stakeholders.

OSHA administrator David Michaels, along with Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO’s director of safety and health, spoke about the agency’s accomplishments and challenges over the past 40 years at an April 21 panel discussion at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.

Michaels said that while the overall rates of workplace deaths, injuries and illnesses have dropped by nearly two-thirds since the agency’s founding, the nation’s workers continue to face both long-standing and emerging hazards. He noted that while construction has been a focus for OSHA from the outset, as of 2009, the industry’s occupational fatality rate remains nearly three times the rate of all U.S. workers combined, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“It’s still a dangerous industry,” Michaels said, adding that 60% of the agency’s inspections are conducted at construction sites.

Though a host of factors contribute to these high rates—for example, health and safety coordination issues across multiple contractors and subcontractors—OSHA’s biggest frustration in recent years has been a rule-making process that Seminario says has been “ossified” by politics and misperceptions about implementation costs.

Noting that the process for formulating last year’s new standard governing the use of cranes and derricks in construction began in 2003, Seminario expressed concern that “there’s not enough push to get something done.”

Michaels also cited OSHA’s 10-year-old struggle to issue a proposal that would update silica exposure limits, one of hundreds of standards that he says are long overdue for revision.

“The existing standard is 40 years old, based on even older science, and calls for equipment that’s no longer available,” Michaels added.

With little hope of a near-term break in the rulemaking logjam, OSHA is stressing compliance with rules that are already in place. Michaels says that while larger construction firms “do a wonderful job of promoting safety through their labor and material supply chains,” smaller constructors with limited health and safety resources remain a problem area.

In addition to stepped-up enforcement activity, OSHA is also working with these contractors to identify risks before they happen. A new program provides free workplace evaluations and advice to contractors with fewer than 250 employees.

Some industry observers say that a well thought-out rulemaking process is essential. Paul Lamarre, corporate safety director at Hall Contracting of Kentucky, Louisville, and chairman of the Associated Builders and Contractors’ Environment, Health, and Safety Committee, says that developing good rules justifies taking the time to be thorough.

“We want rules that everyone can understand and work with, and that reflect both good science and common sense,” he says.

On the other hand, Scott Schneider, Director of Occupational Safety and Health for the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America, believes that OSHA can overcome budget constraints and regulatory delays by taking a more strategic and creative approach to fulfilling its mission, such as increasing the collection and dissemination of best practices from construction jobsites across the country.

“Many times, simple tips are developed in the field that are very effective but never shared,” Schneider says.