Evidence That Project Labor Agreements Do Not Guarantee a Safer Workplace

0 September 11, 2010  Federal Construction, State & Local Construction

Big Labor Bosses and their hand-picked political puppets claim that anti-competitive and costly government-mandated project labor agreements (PLAs) are in the public’s best interest.  In reality, PLAs are crony contracting schemes implemented by corrupt elected officials that funnel lucrative public works contracts to union contractors and their union employees in exchange for political support.

Taxpayers are often victims of increased costs on public works projects subject to PLAs. Numerous academic studies have found that PLAs increase the cost of construction by an estimated average of 12 percent to 18 percent and reduce competition from qualified merit shop contractors and their skilled employees.

Proponents of anti-competitive and costly PLA schemes claim that PLAs somehow guarantee a safer jobsite for construction workers and the construction end-user(s).

Of course, there is no private or government data and evidence to support the myth that an all-union workforce, and/or a workforce operating under a PLA, will have a higher rate of compliance with federal safety and health laws and regulations than jobsites not subject to a PLA. Construction is a dangerous industry regardless of whether a worker belongs to a union.

Contrary to the safety scare tactics employed by PLA proponents, over the last several years union-favoring PLA construction projects have been cited numerous times for serious safety violations.  Many of these safety violations caused fatalities and serious injuries to workers and bystanders.

In August of 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined three construction companies and 14 site contractors a total of $16.6 million – the second largest OSHA fine ever – following a gas explosion during the construction of the Kleen Energy Plant in Middletown, Conn., that killed 6 workers and injured 30 people Feb. 7, 2010.[1] The accident occurred while the project was built under a PLA [2] and used union labor from as far away as Kentucky and California.[3]

On the PLA Boston Harbor clean-up project, OSHA proposed fines totaling $410,900 against four contractors in connection with the fatalities of two workers overcome by insufficient oxygen.[1]  OSHA had already proposed penalties against subcontractors on the project in amounts exceeding $100,000 for violations of “safety standards relative to tunneling, cranes, suspended work platforms, electrical grounding and guarding of an open shaft pit.”[2] Harbor tunnel work ceased because of an electrical fire; workers were evacuated because of fumes; and an engineer was crushed to death in an accident. There have been 2 other fatalities.

In July 1995, two hundered Boston Harbor tunnel workers were sickened from a stench in the wastewater tunnel to Deer Island; and other incidents have indicated a lack of sufficiently diligent management safety practices.[3] In September of 1998, the Occupational and Safety and Health Administration fined a unionized contractor $158,500 for safety violations on Boston’s Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant.[4]  The violations were for exposing employees to various hazards.  The fine also includes $12,500 for this being a second violation.[5]

Safety problems have plagued the $22 billion Mass. Central Artery/Big Dig Project — famous for its well-documented record of missed deadlines, cost-overruns, construction defects (including a motorist fatility due to a collapsed tunnel ceiling panel and multiple fatalities due to deadly safety rails), and reports of union workers visting methadone clinicssleeping and drinking on the job. The State Auditor has charged, “that faulty design work on the cross-harbor portion…jeopardizes workers and increased costs by more than $1 million…Inadequate controls resulted in a serious leak in the sunken tube tunnel, threatening worker safety.”[6]  In April, 2001, OSHA proposed $69,000 in fines against a Big Dig contractor for alleged serious health and safety violations.[7]

On New York State’s union-only Tappan Zee Bridge project in 1998, there were 32 safety violations.[8]  Citations were issued for such violations as failing to comply with fall protection standards, safety training programs and exposure to lead.  These safety violations led up to $22,530 in penalties.

The cable repair of the Ben Franklin Bridge that connects Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey was investigated after a fire broke out burning a wooden scaffold and tarps.  The fire occurred in September of 1998, when union workers were carelessly smoking.[9]

In August 1999, the PLA construction of the new Miller Park baseball stadium for the Milwaukee Brewers came to a halt when a crane collapsed onto the stadium killing three workers and injuring three others.[10]  The crane was being used to install a retractable roof.  The wind was gusting at 26 mph when the collapse happened.  Earlier, on March 5, the original date contractors had set for installing the second part of the roof; the lift was cancelled because the wind was gusting at 10 mph.[11]

Under a PLA, the Iowa Events Center suffered nearly 50 construction accidents in its first six months of construction, including four linked directly to substance abuse by unionized construction workers. One construction worker was killed when he was struck by a steel beam. Ironworkers had been working late shifts to catch up due to previous delays on the project.[12] In another incident, a large crane nearly fell several stories after being compromised by a heavy load. The crane operator was fired for refusing to take a drug test.[13]

The union-only Hanford nuclear site in Washington State was fined a record $330,000 by DOE for nuclear safety violations under the Price-Anderson Act.[14]  This was the largest penalty issued in the history of the Price-Anderson Enforcement Program.  The construction managers failed to see to it that contractors building the site followed their own safety procedures.  They allegedly failed to meet quality assurance requirements in areas such as work process controls, subcontractor qualifications, subcontractor oversight and project design.[15]

In Las Vegas, the Aladdin Hotel and Casino construction led to the death of a union ironworker.  The worker was crushed by a 25-ton load of concrete slabs which fell seven floors when a crane dropped the concrete. [16]

These are but a few examples and grim reminders that construction is a dangerous industry, regardless of whether construction employees belong to a union and work on a PLA jobsite.  While not all PLA projects have experienced safety problems and both union and non-union contractors participate in impressive safety programs, it is important for the public to know that a PLA is not a magic bullet to curb safety issues on construction jobsites.  Public officials, contractors and employees have a responsibility to do all that they can to avoid tragedies through appropriate training, safety and management practices. Construction stakeholders cannot be lulled into a false sense of security and fooled by myths that PLAs guarantee workplace safety: Lives may depend on it.

[Note: Links to footnotes after the jump.] 

[1] Kleen Energy’s fatal deal. CNN Money. 09/10/10
[2] As Day Went On, It Got Worse: Kleen Plant Director Shaken By Lost Lives.Hartford Courant. 02/14/10.
[3] Workers pushed hard to get Kleen Energy job done.Middletown Press. 02/02/10.
[1] OSHA Cites Boston Harbor Contractors, 13 Daily Labor Report (BNA) A-2 (Jan. 20, 2000).
[2]Boston Harbor“-Type Project Labor Agreements in Construction: Nature, Rationales, and Legal Challenges, 19 J. Lab. Res., Winter 1998, at 1, 14.
[3] Id.
[4] Modern Hit With Heavy Fine, ENR, Sept. 21, 1998, at 9.
[5] Id.
[6]Boston Harbor“-Type Project Labor Agreements in Construction: Nature, Rationales, and Legal Challenges, 19 J. Lab. Res., Winter 1998, at 1, 14.
[7] OSHA Proposed $69,000 in Fines Against Big Dig Contractor, OSHA Regional News Release (April 2, 2001).
[8] Cover Story: Safety, ENR, June 21, 1999, at 30-31.
[9] SMOKIN’ Fire-Scarred Philadelphia Bridge Is Further Inspected, ENR, Oct. 12, 1998, at 16.
[10] Crane Accident Kills Three at Unfinished Miller Park, Washington Times, July 15, 1999.
[11] Id.
[12]Des Moines Register, Sept. 21, 2004.
[13] County Grapples With Substance Abuse On Self-Insured Construction Project, Workplace Substance Abuse Advisor, Nov. 26, 2003.
[14] Fluor Unit Gets Record Fine Over Nuclear Waste Safety, ENR, June 7, 1999, at 9.
[15] DOE Fines Hanford Contractor $330,000; Secretary Issues First Compliance Order, CLR Vol. 45, No. 2231, June 2, 1999, at 370.
[16] One Worker Killed as Crane drops 25-Ton Load, ENR, Apr. 19, 1999, at 9.

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