In an industry already in crisis—with rising jobsite deaths and injuries and now in a rush to start and complete economic stimulus projects worth many billions of dollars—where, ultimately, does responsibility for worker safety lie? Does it, as some argue, rest partly with individual workers, or should employers, project owners or even the government be held fully accountable when there is an accident on a construction site?

Proposal For Portable Safety Records Is Generating Dialogue and Controversy

Earlier this year, ENR published a Viewpoint titled, “We Need Personal Safety Records,” by Peter Lupo, director of safety for T.B. Penick & Sons Inc., a San Diego-based general contractor. In it, Lupo said, “I am convinced the only way to etch safety indelibly in the hearts and minds of workers is to engage each individual in a way that he or she cannot ignore, a way that makes the worker personally accountable for the individual’s actions.”

Lupo suggested the Occupational Safety and Health Administration create and maintain personal safety records (PSRs) for workers, “similar to a driving abstract, a credit history or a criminal record,” listing safety infractions, incidents and accidents. Workers with good records would be in high demand, while a poor work history could result in “fines, demotion or other sanctions,” he said.

Lupo’s Viewpoint resonated with many readers and drew multiple comments on our Website, That led ENR to further develop the issue with two enhanced Viewpoints arguing pro and con: another from Lupo, and one from Pete Stafford, executive director of CPWR, the Center for Construction Research and Training, Silver Spring, Md., which is union affiliated.

While Lupo would like OSHA to be the PSR gatekeeper, the agency declined comment. Perhaps the insurance industry, having a vested financial interest in safety and controlling much industry data, should assume the role. However, that could be a problem. “PSRs would have to be regulated by OSHA or another government agency because releasing the data necessary could compromise an insurers duty to protect the policyholders’ confidentiality,” says an industry insider.

But record keeping is only one aspect of this complex issue, and many questions remain. For instance, if a worker is dunned for poor safety practices, will a safe worker receive a higher wage rate? If a worker has an unsatisfactory safety record, will he or she ever be able to work in construction again? And what about supervisors—should they be held accountable for their workers? One member of the American Society of Safety Engineers, Des Plaines, Ill., noted, “While I like the idea, it is a bit over the top when you consider that OSHA will not even enforce the act that created the agency.”

Jay Greenspan, chairman of safety consultant JMJ Associates, Austin, Texas, agrees with Lupo’s sentiment but disagrees with his strategy. He compares PSRs to road speed-tracking signs that flash if the driver exceeds the speed limit. “Would you call the police and report yourself?” he asks.

E. Colette Nelson, executive vice president of Alexandria, Va-based American Subcontractors Association, led an ad hoc discussion with members who initially thought PSRs were a good idea but changed their minds as they delved into the topic. “Contractors are interested in having accurate safety information on employees but they are concerned about privacy, the paperwork burden and recording accidents or incidents versus infractions,” says Nelson. “Members also raised questions as to what happens when someone is injured due to the negligence of another employee, especially on multiple- employer sites. Also, just how long does an infraction last on the PSR—a lifetime or can you remediate?”

The Construction Users Roundtable also discussed the issue. Arthur L. Goehry, safety committee member and senior director for project management at Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick, N.J., wants to remove incentives and penalties. “Being refused possible employment should be reason enough for an employee to maintain a good safety record.”

Jerry Gorski, national chairman of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Arlington, Va., and president of Gorski Engineering Co. Inc., Collegeville, Pa., says,. “On [ABC] member jobsites we expect all trades to watch each others’ back, because everyone is accountable.”

The American Road & Transportation Builders Association, Washington, D.C., liked the idea. “An informal survey of safety leaders from ARTBA member companies confirms that unsafe employee acts are the primary cause of accidents,” says Bradley M. Sant, ARTBA vice president of safety and education. “The portable safety record is a good idea, especially if coupled with portable safety training records, but a government bureaucracy is not the way.”

Associated General Contractors of America, Arlington, Va., Director of Safety and Health Kevin R. Cannon says, “While the suggested solution raises some important privacy questions, given today’s technology, finding a way to make safety information more readily available without controversy should be achievable.”