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by GANGBOX: CONSTRUCTION WORKERS NEWS SERVICE
Saturday, Nov. 15, 2003 at 10:03 AM
LIFE IS CHEAP...BUT CONSTRUCTION DELAYS ARE EXPENSIVE..or, why construction continues to be such a hazardous industry to work in..
LIFE IS CHEAP...BUT CONSTRUCTION DELAYS ARE EXPENSIVE..or, why
construction continues to be such a hazardous industry to work in...
By Gregory A. Butler, local 608 carpenter
It's funny how, whenever there is a fatal construction accident, the
media present it as either a natural disaster, a random "act of God"
like an earthquake or a hurricaine, or as a criminal act of an
individual callous and greedy employer.
Indeed, construction accidents ARE a crime, actually a form of
manslaughter...preventable deaths caused by human recklessness.
However, it's not just a question of individual greedy contractors
acting at random in a social vacuum....the problem is with the system,
and the cold hard financial realities that put contractors in a
position where they need put the lives and health of tradespeople at
risk to make a profit.
Case in point, the collapse of the parking structure at the Tropicana
Casino and Resort in Atlantic City on October 30, 2003.
4 tradespeople died in that incident, two local 350 ironworkers, 29
year old apprentice James P. Bigelow and 43 year old Michael Wittland
and two local 2 cement masons, 21 year old apprentice Scott N.
Pietrosante and journeyman Robert A. Tartaglio, 42. 20 other
ironworkers, cement masons, laborers and carpenters were injured, 6
Reportedly, they were impaled on the rebar and half buried in the
concrete when they were found.
Twenty other ironworkers, cement masons, laborers and carpenters were
injured in the collapse, 6 critically, including local 415 laborer
Demetrius Johnson, 51 and only 1 year away from a pension. Johnson
didn't die, but he came damned close...he had multiple broken bones,
including both his neck and his back.
Ironworker Edward Wittland was also among the critically injured...he
had a broken neck. And, yes, he was related to the late Michael
Wittland..they were father and son. Fortunately, Michael Wittland's
other ironworker son, Michael Jr, wasn't on the site that day, or he
might have been among the casualties along with his dad and his older
Bigelow, the Wittlands, Pietrosante, Tartaglio and Johnson all worked
for Fabi Construction, the concrete sub on this job.
Now, initially, the way this story was covered in the "Press of
Atlantic City", "New York Times", "New York Daily News", "Philadelphia
Inquirer" and "Philadelphia Daily News" was as if this building
collapse was a natural disaster, a random unfortunate incident, like a
meteor strike or a volcanic eruption, an inexplcable tragedy that
happened for no reason..
Later on, the press coverage shifted into crime story mode...focusing
on the acts of the General Contractor and concrete subcontractor on the
site..and presenting the decisions that led to the collapse as the
(alleged) misdeeds of bad men, viewed out of any kind of economic
Neither view really explained WHY that accident happened.
Let me break down the technical, and financial, reasons why the
The parking structure was being built using a dangerous building
method, called filigree slab construction.
Filigree slab construction is used instead of conventional cast in
place concrete formwork.
Normally, the carpenters would fabrcate and erect wooden or metal forms
in the shape of the columns and decks to be poured. Those forms would
be held up by wooden or metal braces, posts, stringers and legs as well
as various metal column clamps and wooden or metal walers and
Then, ironworkers would put the rebar inside of the forms, and then
laborers and cement masons would pour concrete in the forms. The forms
are then stripped the day after the pour, and wooden or metal reshoring
poles are put in place to hold the structure up until the concrete is
fully cured 14 to 28 days later.
On this job, the columns were cast in place, and then the filigree
slabs, which are built in a factory and then trucked to the site, are
bolted to the columns. Then rebar is placed on top of the filigree
decks, and concrete is poured on top of them. The contractor needs a
lot less carpenters and laborers to build the structure this
way..there's less forms for the carpenters to fabricate and erect, and
for the laborers to strip, which means less hours of carpenter and
laborer work..which means lower labor costs.
Filigree slab construction is a quick and cheap way of building a
reinforced concrete structure.
Quick, cheap..and dangerous...
Back in October, they had a very similar deck collapse. But, they were
only on the 1st floor, and only 3 laborers were slightly injured. The
US Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Fabi $ 8,375 for
that incident.. Fabi contested that fine, even though it's a tiny price
to pay, considering the magnitude of the accident. GC Keating Building
Corp got an even more pathetically small fine, $ 1,125. Keating paid it
without a complaint..they probably just viewed it as a "cost of doing
Fabi had a similar accident on an Atlantic City job in June 1995,
working with the same General Contractor, Keating Building Corp.
Demolition laborer Frank Caucci, 24, died in that incident, and OSHA
fined Fabi and Keating a combined total of $ 105,000..which is still a
small price to pay for a human life.
After 8 years of appeals by the companies, those fines were reduced by
the federal court to only $ 31,500.
Beyond those incidents, Keating and Fabi have a history of disregarding
their worker's safety....Keating has had 122 OSHA violations since
1973, and Fabi has had 44 since 1975.
Beyond the dangerous work methods and reckless contractors, it also
appears that the client, Tropicana Casino and Resort, was pushing the
This $ 245 million dollar casino expansion job started in April 2002.
They were adding an 18 story tower with 502 rooms (making the complex
the largest hotel in the state, with 2,126 rooms), a 200,000 square
foot restaurant and entertainment complex and a 2,400 car garage.
Tropicana wanted to have all 502 of their new rooms, as well as the
entertainment complex, and the garage, ready for occupancy by April
2004, just 24 months after they started the foundation work.
The job was on such a fast schedule for a brutally simple reason...cold
Remember, every day that those rooms are under construction is another
day that those rooms are not making money. In fact those rooms are
actually costing the hotel money..since that $ 245 million is all
borrowed, and they pay interest to the banks they borrowed those funds
from every day.
Worse yet, typically construction loans are at a very high interest
rate, since construction is speculative, and there's no guarantee that
the bank will ever get it's money back.
The bank's capital is at high risk, so they demand a high rate of
return on that investment
The sooner the rooms are done, the sooner the hotel can get the bank
off their backs, and pay off those high interest loans
To make sure that the job was done on this fast schedule, Tropicana
wanted the bulk of the concrete work done before winter set in, since
they lost a lot of days to snowstorms at the beginning of the year..
So, they appear to have turned the screws on their GC, Keating Building
Keating, in turn, may have turned the screws on their subcontractors...
Including concrete sub Fabi Construction...
Since Fabi was, most likely, under the gun, this probably explains why
they pushed the job like they did, going from having a 3 week cycle for
each floor to a 1 week cycle.
They also pushed their laborers and carpenters to strip the forms
prematurely on the cast in place columns on the garage, and pushed the
laborers and the masons to pour the concrete on the filigree slabs at a
faster pace. They also most likely didn't let the carpenters put up
enough pole shores to properly reshore the precast slabs attached to
the newly poured columns.
Laborers George Tolson and Norman Williams, and cement mason John
Pirosante Jr (the older brother of cement mason Scott N. Pirosante, who
died in the collapse) told the "New York Times" that, before the
collapse, they had seen at least 6 pole shores which had become out of
shape as the slabs shifted.
This was due to there not being enough shores put under the slab.
According to Mid-State Filigree Systems, the Cranbury, NJ-based precast
concrete manufacturer that made the filigree slabs, collapses can
result if a contractor doesn't use enough shores, or uses shores that
are not strong enough.
Also, as the building went up, there were a lot of cracks in the poured
in place portion of the slabs as well as in the cast in place columns,
due to the job being pushed from a 3 week cycle to a 1 week cycle.
Reportedly, Fabi and Keating were in such a rush to finish the job that
the ironworkers didn't even have time to set the rebar that would tie
in the cast in place concrete on top of the slabs into the columns.
The contractors also may have had had the ironworkers bolting the
precast garage floor sections in place before the columns had cured
Of course, uncured concrete hasn't yet developed it's full strength.
And, if you put enough weight on it, it will fail...
Tolson, Williams and Pirosante told their foremen about their concerns.
But, they were ignored, because the push was on, and the job had to be
done by April 2004, no matter what
The claims of laborers Tolson and Williams and cement mason Pirosante
are backed up by public statements from the Business Agents of
Ironworkers local 350 and Laborers local 415.
In other words, the push from a 3 week cycle to a 1 week cycle may very
well be what probably led to the collapse on that jobsite on that
tragic Thursday in early fall, 2003, when 4 tradespeople lost their
lives..6 more will be spending major time in the hospital..and 14 more
have suffered lost time injuries
Not to mention the mental trauma that the 400 workers on the site
suffered from the shock of surviving the collapse, and watching their
fellow workers get killed or maimed..
And the mental and financial distress to be suffered by the families of
the deceased workers..in particular the ironworker apprentice and the
young cement mason who died, both of whom left behind wives and young
Of course, those priorities were all secondary at best for the
contractors, the casino operators, the bankers and the state government
that they control. As New Jersey Governor James McGreevey (D) rushed to
the scene in his helicopter, one of the first people he called was Paul
Rubeli, the CEO of Tropicana.
According to Rubeli, McGreevey promised the CEO that he'd "get to the
bottom of what happened AND GET THIS BUILDING OPENED".
In other words, the dead and injured workers wern't the priority..
Protecting the profits of the contractors, hotel operators and mortgage
As a matter of fact, Tropicana didn't even bother to shut down the
hotel, or even the casino, after the collapse. Gamblers were still at
the tables and the slot machines as the bodies were being dug out of
the rubble next door.
Now, some folks still might say that this is just an isolated
One greedy casino owner, and two greedy contractors, and a callous
That's certainly the way the media is presenting this incident...
But, sad as it is to say, that reckless disregard for worker safety is
the norm in the construction industry, rather than the exception.....
For instance, less than 9 days after the fatal accident at the
Tropicana, 3 workers employed by American Piles, Inc suffered severe
electric shock on a foundation job in the Far Rockaway section of New
York City's Borough of Queens. Local 14 operating engineer Thomas
Tierney, 35, was moving a crane, with the help of local 1456
dockbuilders Anthony Nelson, 42 and Mitchell Guest, 40.
The crane hit a high tension line, coursing 13,000 volts of electricity
through the piece of equipment, and the 3 workers. Nelson died
immediately, and Tierney and Guest were injured badly enough to have to
be rushed to Peninsula Hospital.
Of course, that wasn't the only other occupational death that happened
on a construction site either.....
1,121 construction workers died on the job in America in 2002, 20% of
all workplace fatalities in the country.
By contrast, less than 600 workplace fatalities happened in factories
in this country, even though there are only 6.8 million construction
workers, and over 17 million factory workers in the USA.
There are deadlier places to work than construction sites, of course...
Commercial fishing boats in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska...
New York City taxicabs.. (of course, that industry's occupational
deaths are due to shootings during armed robberies, rather than
But, on the whole, construction is a pretty deadly industry to be
And bad for your health as well....over 200,000 construction workers
suffered lost time injuries in 2002...that is, they were hurt bad
enough to require at least one day off the job.
Beyond the trips to the emergency room and days lost from work, there's
the fact that this business shortens our lives. The average life
expectancy for construction workers is only 63...which is about 12
years less than the average for American males in general.
We get exposed to all sorts of highly toxic substances, like lead,
creosote and asbestos, that subject us to the risk of cancer. The
fiberglass that has replaced asbestos as the most common insulation
material poses serious risks of it's own to our health. And the most
common constructon material, gypsum (the raw material that sheetrock
and concrete are made of) has health hazards as well. Even steel has
it's dangers...from the metal vapors released when that metal is cut
with torches or power saws.
We saw an extreme form of those construction health risks at one of the
most famous construction jobs in the country...Ground Zero.
Recently, the Department of Health of the City of New York, along with
the State of New York and the federal Environmental Protection Agency
has set up a "health registry" for workers who were on that job (along
with clerical workers and professionals with offices in or near the old
World Trade Center, and residents in the luxury apartments and co-ops
located in Battery Park City and Tribeca, the wealthy neighborhoods
located around the old WTC site).
Basically, the government is admitting that there were major health
hazards at that site..a fact that they've spent the last two years
In fact, when the towers fell, a massive 200' high plume of gypsum dust
and smoke billowed over all of Lower Manhattan below Canal Street, and
a thin grimy film of gypsum dust covered most of that area for almost 6
months after the attacks.
Of course, the worst of the pollution was at the site..where gypsum
dust and other contaminants (including lead, PCBs, asbestos and fumes
from burning wood, paper and plastic) formed a toxic brew along with
decayed human remains, rotting food, contaminated water and raw sewage.
At any given time, at least 3,000 construction workers were working in
the Pit,and another 3,000 teamsters hauled debris out of the hole. All
told, upwards of 20,000 of New York City's 100,000 union construction
workers passed through that site at one time or another during the
first 6 months after the attacks.
Along with those workers, who formed the backbone of the cleanup force,
just about every one of New York City's 14,000 firefighters and 40,000
police officers passed through the site at one time or another during
the cleanup, along with 3,000 of the city's 40,000 transit workers,
several hundred Nassau County and New York State Police officers,
several hundred New York State National Guard soldiers, thousands of
sanitation and environmental protection workers and hundreds of local,
state and federal employees and Red Cross volunteers from all over the
country as well.
And, at least 1,100 SEIU local 32bj janitors were used to clean up
World Trade Center dust from surrounding buildings..along with several
thousand illegal alien day laborers and domestic servants who cleaned
up the interiors of the surrounding retail stores and luxury apartments
Unlike the cops, firefighters and construction workers, the day
laborers and janitors were NOT provided with any kind of masks to
protect themselves from the dust, not even the cheap ones you buy in
the 99 cent stores. And, most of them do not even have insurance to
treat themselves for the diseases they caught as a result of working
It was not that much better for the construction workers. They were
given masks, but, they were working 7/12s (12 hours a day, 7 days a
week)..and, it's physically impossible to do heavy physical work for 12
hours straight wearing a dust mask or respirator. The mask starts to
stink, it gets hard to breathe through, and the worker ends up taking
Unlike the luckless day laborers, the union construction workers at
least had health coverage..but, the New York State Workers Compensation
Board has been reluctant to pay out any money to all but a few of the
"Heroes of Ground Zero"...even to those who can no longer work.
The State and City have been equally stingy with the many cops,
firefighters and other civil servants who've been sickened by the WTC
experience. A bill was recently introduced in the State Legislature to
provide Line of Duty pensions to city workers who were sickened by
working at Ground Zero.
Both Governor George Pataki and Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and all of New
York City's major newspapers, have come out against this bill..saying
it's "too expensive"...and the government "can't afford it". The "New
York Daily News" actually condemned the injured cops and firefighters
as "greedy", and actually had the nerve to compare their permanent lung
damage to "stubbing your toe".
Of course, they can afford to spend $ 40 billion in loan guarantees to
build unneeded new office space on top of the ruins of the WTC...and
the government can also pay $ 280 million dollars in rent subsidies to
rich people who live near the old WTC..
Of course, that's different, because that money is for the bankers and
businesspeople, not for the families of workers disabled in the
aftermath of the nation's worst terrorist attack.
There's no question of there being "no money" when rich people want to
Funny, just a few short months ago, these same politicians and
newspapers were tripping all over themselves to praise the "Heroes of
Ground Zero"..but, when it comes time to back up those kind words with
hard cash..the government suddenly "can't afford it".
In human terms, 5,000 workers suffered lost time injuries during the
early phase of the job..including over 400 of the day laborers cleaning
up the buildings around the site.
A lot of the construction worker injuries were do to the fact that the
contractors pushed this job..
Supposedly, this was to give "closure" to the families of the 2,800
dead, by recovering their remains as quickly as humanly possible.
In fact, this was to allow developer Larry Silverstein, the billionare
who leased the World Trade Center from the Port Authority, the
opportunity to begin building new office buildings on the site of the
old ones as quickly as possible.
He was paying $ 120 million dollars a month in rent, while not
collecting a dime in rent from the tenants who's offices were blown up.
Also, Silverstein was awating payment on the $ 7 billion dollar
insurance policy he had on the World Trade Center towers.
Naturally, Silverstein wanted to get income generating property put up
on the site as soon as possible.
Which meant 7/12s around the clock for the men and women in the Pit.
It's possible that a lot of remains were destroyed during the hasty
excavation of the ruins.
Not to mention the fact that valuable evidence of the attack's effect
on the towers were destroyed as well.
As for long term health effects, the most significant problem has been
a newly discovered chronic lung disease, called, appropriately enough,
World Trade Center Cough.
To date, this disease has been diagnosed in about 2,500 firefighters,
1,400 cops, almost all 3,000 of the teamsters who hauled debris out of
the hole, and an unknown but possibly huge number of construction
workers, day laborers and janitors who worked in and around Ground
And then, there's the hidden injuries..the psychological ones.
The men and women who worked in the pit saw lots of horrible things,
and dug out a lot of horibly mutilated corpses out of the ruins. In
some cases, the dismembered bodies belonged to relatives or friends of
the Ground Zero workers..this was especially true for the firefighters.
Needless to say, all of this was extremely traumatic, and many of these
workers are suffering from depression and post traumatic stress from
It's not clear how many of these workers have had to seek out
psyciatric treatment to deal with the horrors they dealt with at Ground
The workers who cleaned up the Pentagon in Washington DC had it even
worse than the brothers and sisters at Ground Zero.
Unlike the WTC, the Pentagon site wasn't even 100% union..
The General Contractor, AMEC was allowed to operate the job open shop
by the Washington DC Building Trades Council (AMEC was at Ground Zero
too, along with Bovis Lend-Lease, Turner and Tully, but they were union
They were exposed to similar toxic conditions on their site, had
horrible sanitary conditions with minimal toilet and handwashing
facilities, and, for "security" reasons, were not even allowed to use
the facilities in the Pentagon (reportedly, the Army even made them eat
their lunch outside, rather than in the Pentagon cafeteria) and were
also pushed to work very fast on a 7/12 round the clock schedule.
In the Pentagon case, the reason for the fast deadline was so the
building could be quickly repaired so as to coordinate the invasions of
Afghanistan and Iraq.
In fact, the Washington DC Building Trades Council, and in particular
the Mid Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters, actually used
patriotism and pro war sentiment to justify the unsafe working
conditions and having to work side by side with scabs...and to
agressively discourage tradespeople from complaining about the abuses
and the contract violations.
It supposedly was the "patriotic duty" of the DC union tradespeople to
work on a dangerous job side by side with non union labor..and
complaining to the union was presented as an "unpatriotic" act, that
was almost the same as being a terrorist sympathizer.
Again, we see the same problem....the client's business need to get the
building on line ASAP is more important than the lives, health and
safety of the workers on the site.
And these aren't the only instances of construction workers being
sickened by our jobs.
As I mentioned above, we have a shorter than average life expectancy in
And construction workers routinely suffer from back, wrist and other
joint injuries due to ergonomic hazards from unsafe work pratices. Many
common construction materials (such as the 4 x 8 sheets of plywood or
sheetrock) are really not designed to be easily handled, and often have
to be lifted in very awkward ways. Over time, this causes damage to the
body, in particular wrists and the back.
We also have a problem with exposure to toxic building materials. Folks
are most familliar with asbestos, of course, but there are also long
term hazards related to exposure to fiberglass, and the gypsum that is
the raw material for concrete and sheetrock...it's entirely possible
that the root cause of World Trade Center Cough is high levels of
exposure to gypsum dust from the pulverized wreckage of the towers.
Many construction workers are also exposed to lead, and some workers
are exposed to radioactive materials on their jobs. Also, a lot of the
glues and sillicones we use as adhesives can cause long term medical
problems. Even common sawdust has long term health affects as well.
Then, there's the often forgotten issue inadequate hand washing and
sanitary facilities on our sites. On many jobs, there's nowhere to wash
your hands before you eat..which means that the glue or fiberglass or
oil on your hands ends up in your mouth and your system.
Also, a lot of jobsites don't have bathrooms. For the majority of
construction workers who are men, this situation, while it's disgusting
and makes the jobsite smell really bad, isn't that serious a problem.
It simply means that you urinate in the corner, or against a wall, or
in a bucket, or in a bottle, and, if you have to defecate, you end up
using a bucket.
However, lack of jobsite toilets is a VERY serious problem for roughly
136,000 of the nation's building tradespeople, that is, the
approximately 2% of the nation's construction workforce who are women.
If they are lucky, these workers might be able to leave a jobsite that
doesn't have a bathroom to use a restroom on an occupied floor or in a
nearby business... But, if no public bathroom is available, or they are
not allowed to leave the jobsite during the workday to find a restroom,
female construction workers often find themselves having to hold their
urine til the end of the day...a pratice that is not only uncomfortable
and humiliating, but also causes bladder infections, and can lead to
long term kidney problems, and in some cases damage to the bladder.
Beyond those general industrywide problems, there are specific hazards
to health and safety that can vary dramatically by type of
construction, of course.
Heavy construction, excavation and hirise concrete work are among the
most dangerous areas of the building trades. The tradespeople who work
in that part of the business are exposed to many dangers.
There are many ways to die or get injured on a concrete job. Obviously,
one of the big risks is building collapses. But, a more common cause of
death or serious injury is workers falling off the sides of the
building or the scaffolds on or around the structure, in particular
during the stripping of concrete forms or the building and dismantling
Also, workers are often killed or injured by being hit by heavy
equipment. On highway jobs, there are also the risk of being hit by
cars and trucks on the road, or by trucks being used by the contractor.
On excavation jobs, there is also the danger of the hole collapsing,
especially if the contractor has used an inadequate amount of wooden or
metal shoring around the hole.
All of those safety risks are accelerated if the contractor is pushing
the job, of course.
As far as health hazards are concerned, one of the more common problems
is chemical burns from concrete coming in contact with unprotected
skin. Also, when concrete is chipped,chopped, cut or drilled, gypsum
dust is released, and than can cause long term lung problems and may
even be related to cancer. On excavation jobs in existing sewers, there
is also the risk of disease (in particular, dysentary) from being
exposed to raw sewage.
The men and women who work in machinery rigging and industrial
maintenance face many of the same hazards that tradespeople encounter
in concrete work.
Along with those risks, workers doing maintenance on nuclear plants
face the problem of radiation exposure. This is especially true during
the refuling of the nuclear reactors.
These industrial maintenance jobs are often run at a very fast pace.
The owners of the plants will, for financial reasons, only shut the
facility down for a very short time, (they call it an "outage"),
forcing the workers to get a lot of work done in a few intense days of
round the clock work. Of course, when workers are pushed, and fatigued
from working 7/12's, they are more likely to have accidents.
On the other end of the industry, residential construction has it's
dangers as well. Probably the biggest safety hazard faced by the
workers on these jobs is deaths and injuries due to falls.
Carpenters working on houseframing crews are most at risk for that
hazard, but laborers and bricklayers also deal with this hazard when
they are working up on the scaffolds.
There is also a high risk of building collapses on residential jobs.
Both wood frame houses and masonry and wood structures can collapse if
they have been put up without adequate bracing, or if an excessive
amount of weight has been placed on the joists.
Residential construction workers, especially carpenters doing drywall
work, are often pushed to work very fast..sometimes, they even get paid
by the piece, rather than the hour, to make them work faster. This can
lead over time to ergonomic-related injuries such as carpal tunnel
syndrome of the wrist and back injuries.
Workers on office interior jobs have a relatively safe work
environment. But, as in residential work, carpenters doing sheetrock
work on these jobs face a lot of long term ergonomic injuries related
to being forced to work fast. Also, carpenters who are told to cut
metal studs by the bundle with chopsaws, rather than one at a time with
tinsnips, are exposed to toxic metal vapors.
These jobs are often in sealed buildings, with the ventilation shut off
for the duration of the job. The resultant poor or non existant air
circulation can lead to hazards related to chemical exposure, as well
as excessive heat in the summer months.
The heat issue isn't just about comfort..if it gets hot enough, there
is a risk of heat exhaustion, and, if it's bad enough, heatstroke. And
heatstroke can be fatal in some cases.
Also, poorly ventilated jobs can expose workers to excessive amounts of
paint fumes, glue fumes, gypsum dust and sawdust. Long term exposure
can cause serious problems, and can even lead to the workers getting
Laborers working on demolition jobs are among the most at risk for
injury on the job. There is a strong risk of injury or death from
falling walls and ceilings, floor collapses caused by having too much
debris stacked in one place, falls from scaffolds, collapses of poorly
built scaffolds and even full scale building collapses. Also, these
workers are exposed to asbestos, lead, fiberglass, metal vapors and
gypsum dust, among other toxic materials.
Laborers on asbestos, lead, hazmat (hazardous materials - usually
highly toxic industrial chemical waste) and radioactive materials
cleanup jobs are, obviously, at extremely high risk for exposure to
These workers also face heat exhaustion and heatstroke-related hazards
due to working in masks and boiler suits in hot weather with no
ventilation. Unlike other workers on poorly ventilated hot jobs, they
can't even stop for a minute and drink from a bottle of water, since
they work in moon suits. Most moon suits have no ventilation, and even
the suits that have a cooling system are still hot and uncomfortable to
Those demolition and hazmat job hazards are faced in a more extreme
form by the workers cleaning up the sites of terrorist attacks like
Ground Zero and the Pentagon.
Those workers have to work in masks and moon suits on unstable rubble,
whre it's easy to fall and even to get pinned if the debris shifts.
They are also working next to heavy equipment, exposing them to the
risk of being hit by the pinch points on the machines. And, for the
workers who are first responders, there is also the risk of a secondary
attack immediately following the initial attack.
Worse yet, if future terrorist attack cleanup jobs are pushed the way
the WTC and Pentagon jobs were, that would only make the risk of injury
that much worse. Workers who are working very fast, and are fatigued
from working long hours, are more likely to suffer injuries from
slipping and falling, as well as ergonomic related damage to the wrist
and back, and being hit or pinched when they are working too close to
heavy equipment. Also, the moon suits are difficult enough to work in
on an 8 hour schedule...12 hour days in a hazmat suit and mask are more
likely to cause heat exhaustion and even heatstroke.
As far as health hazards are concerned, there is not only the risk of
exposure to gypsum dust and other toxic materials, but there are also
human remains, raw sewage from broken sewer mains and explosive residue
for the workers to deal with..
In the future, if there are "dirty bomb" or nuclear attacks, there also
may be radiation hazards on these jobs as well.
As it is, the US Postal Service has suffered anthrax attacks, and the
cleanup from those attacks has exposed both construction and postal
workers to biohazards..this kind of biowarfare attack may happen again,
and there is also the possibility of chemical attack as well, which
would pose yet another set of hazards for the construction workers
assigned to clean up those sites.
OK, so those are the problems..is anybody doing anything to protect
American construction workers?
How about the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration?
Well..they're really not that effective.
First of all, OSHA has a tiny workforce, with less than 1,100
Also, ideologically speaking, OSHA has been moving away from
enforcement and towards "cooperating" with contractors to reduce their
insurance premiums. That policy was introduced by President Clinton's
Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, back in the early 1990's, and has
been continued by George Bush's Labor Secretary, Elaine Chow.
Basically, OSHA will help the company correct violations, rather than
Now, of course, OSHA doesn't even come out to the job unless somebody's
dead or critically injured.
And, even once OSHA gets there, the inspector always gets management's
side of the story first. The inspectors almost never speaks to the
actual workers. At best, the OSHA rep MIGHT speak to one of the shop
At best, an unsafe employer MIGHT get a small fine from OSHA..and that
fine can be tied up in the federal court system for years before it's
paid (try doing that with a parking ticket and see what happens to
you). Usually, the courts reduce the OSHA fine.
Of course, OSHA under Reich and Chow has moved away from even that,
towards having the inspectors ask the company to correct the
violations..and rewarding companies that cooperate with lower insurance
Now, in cases where the company will still lose money by working safe,
even with the OSHA fines and high insurance premiums, OSHA's
"cooperation" efforts are absolutely useless.
So, if the government can't help us, who can?
What about the Building Trades unions?
Now, unfortunately, the unions are not ther to look out for the 5.5
million non union workers in our industry. But, for the 1.3 million
American tradespeople who are union, they are supposed to protect us.
The question is, how good a job are they doing?
Actually, the unions are really not doing that good a job of protecting
All of the construction unions have large and well financed Health and
Safety Departments, with operations at the local union, District
Council and International Union levels. These departments are staffed
with very dedicated and well trained folks. Some of these unions, like
the Carpenters, Electricians and Laborers, have very elaborate safety
training programs for both apprentice and journeylevel members and all
of the unions do at least some member safety training.
So what's the problem?
Generally, most construction health and safety programs follow the
model of the National Safety Council, and their health and safety
training materials are either prepared by, or closely modeled on, NSC
The problem is, the NSC has a very strong pro management and anti
Which isn't that surprising, since almost all of the NSC's funding
comes from corporate sources.
The NSC belives in "safety conciousness".
That is, they belive that the main cause of jobsite accidents is
"worker carelessness". According to the Council, if only workers were
careful, and paid more attention, there would be no accidents.
In the NSC's biased and unrealistic worldview, there are no contractors
pushing their tradespeople to work unsafe to get the job done on time
and on budget..and construction workers are not at risk of getting laid
off if they work "too slow"...
The Council ignores the economic context of unsafe work, and pretends
that tradespeople are actually in a position to freely avoid unsafe
pratices with no fear of job loss.
Of course, as every union construction worker knows, refusing an order,
no matter how unsafe, can cost you your job.. Now, if you have a steady
job, you know that getting laid off may mean months on the out of work
list. And, if you work off the list, and have been out of work for a
while, putting your job at risk means going right back to sitting home
with no money waiting for a job..
In both cases, union tradespeople know that the union will not back you
up if you get laid off, instead, they will probably take the company's
side, and blame you for losing your job. Even if they do sympathize
with you, they won't get your job back, because our union contracts
allow contractors to fire us at any time, for any reason, or no reason
at all, there is really no recourse if a contractor fires you for
refusing unsafe work.
The National Safety Council ignores all these realities, and,
basically, blames the victim by claiming that we have control over our
work safety when we quite clearly do not.
Also, the NSC model training materials ignore the only real way to stop
unsafe work pratices...that is, WILDCAT STRIKES over safety issues.
I'll go into more detail on that below.
Instead, they focus on innefective methods like calling OSHA or the
union, and patiently waiting for a union safety rep or an OSHA
inspector to come, while continuing to work in an unsafe fashion.
So, what is the answer? How can construction workers protect ourselves
on the job?
Like I said above, by organized resistance.
That is, by all the workers on a jobsite staging wildcat strikes
against unsafe work pratices...
Remember, they can lay one worker off if he/she refuses to work
unsafe..but they can't fire every worker on the jobsite.. If we stick
together, we can make a difference.
This writer personally witnessed that fact first hand, on the 5th floor
of 99 Park Avenue in August 2000. The GC on the site, a company called
PC, Inc, went ahead and demoed out the men's room on this one floor
job, and didn't make adequate sanitary arraingements for the 100 people
working on this jobsite.
The men's room had been adequate for the 98 men on the site, with 3
toilets, 3 urinals, and two sinks, and the laboerers were pretty good
about supplying paper towels and toilet paper. But, after they demoed
that bathroom out, the GC expected us to share the ladies room with the
2 women on the job.
Problem was, the ladies room has only one toilet, that didn't flush and
The two women on the site, a local 3 electrician, and a local 638
fitter, actually had had to improvise their own bathroom facility
arraingments on an occupied floor, because the ladies room on the floor
was unfit for them to use.
One of the fitters came up with a plan. He came around after coffee,
and told us that we should all go to the bathroom at once, and line up
at the one toilet. He would signal us, by walking around and saying,
really loud, "I gotta piss!", and we'd all walk out. Everybody agreed.
Then, about 20 minutes later, the fitter walked around the site, and
yelled out "I gotta piss, really bad!!". And everybody lined up in
front of the one bathroom, as if we were wating to use it.
And we stopped the entire job.
All of the carpenters walked out also, as did all of the fitters, the
electricians, the tinknockers, the painters.. everybody on the site
stopped working and joined the protest in front of the ladies
room..even the two women on the job, who would still have their own
bathroom issues, even if we saved the men's room.
One of the electricians said "we're costing them a thousand dollars a
Of course, this got the GC's undivided attention.
So,after about 10 minutes, PCs super made an arraingment. He got the
sheetrock contractor, Techno, to get a couple of carpenters in there,
and he got the plumber in there also. When he told us he'd fix it, we
all returned to work. And, a couple of hours later, they had 4 stalls,
with shower curtains for doors. We still didn't have sinks in this
bathroom, and the two women still didn't have a facility they could use
on the floor, but we had made the contractor at least partially correct
And, of course, nobody got docked for the work stoppage.
There was another, much larger, health and safety walkout in August
2000, at the MTA's new headquarters at 2 Broadway.
The issue was, the job was extremely hot, since the windows had already
been sealed, and the HVAC system had not yet been set up. So, the
several hundred tradespeople on the site went on strike one morning,
right after coffee. They left the building, and went down to the
sidewalk in front of the place.
In about an hour's time, the BAs came down, and went upstairs to talk
to the GC. Shortly thereafter, the union officials told the guys and
gals to return to work..and the problem would be solved in about an
And, within about an hour, the GCs had the laborers start breaking out
window panels with sledgehammers. Incidentally, those lights were part
of a curtain wall system..where each panel costs in excess of $
10,000. They knocked out about 4 windows on each floor, and replaced
the gaping holes with temporary plywood hatches, so the windows could
be closed at night or in bad weather.
And the workers got their ventilation system. As well as fans and
drinking water on the floors.
There have been other "heat strikes", of course. In this case, by the
200 or so sheetrockers working for Nastasi Associates, Component
Assembly Systems and A & M Wallboard at 4 Times Square, the Conde Nast
Building, in August of 1999. The heat on that job was unbearable, for
the same reasons as 2 Broadway....unopenable windows and an HVAC system
that had not yet been made operational.
So, all of the carpenters with Nastasi Associates, CAS and A & M walked
off the job.
The strike was settled in short order..although they didn't resort to
bashing out windows on this job!! 4 Times Square is a 40 story
building, in a very crowded area of Midtown Manhattan, and had already
had a lethal hoist collapse that killed an elderly neighborhood
resident, so knocking out windows wouldn't have gone over too well with
the surrounding community.
But, the GC, Lehr Construction, did provide fans, drinking water, and
even an actual onsite cafeteria for the tradespeople..something that's
pretty much unheard of in construction. And, Lehr got the sheet metal
contractor to get the air conditioning system online ASAP, so as to
avoid further walkouts.
Remember, in our business, time is money.
Shut the job down..and they have to do what we want, or they lose
money..a LOT of money..very quickly.
And, of course, the wildcat safety strike is not just an effective
construction labor tactic, it can be a useful technique for shop
workers too. In 1988, this writer witnessed a wildcat safety strike at
Bakers Pride Oven Co, a pizza oven manufacturer in New Rochelle, NY.
There were a number of problems in the plant's paint shop. There were a
couple of asthmatic guys, who's conditions were worsened by the paint
fumes, who the boss wouldn't transfer to other departments, as well as
a lack of proper ventilation, eyewash stations and fire extinguishers.
So, one morning, after the morning coffee break ended at 9:45AM, all 10
guys in that department went on a wildcat strike. They left their
spraypaint booths, went to the breakroom, and sat down. Within about 20
minutes, the company's owner, Ira Nevins, the company president,
Nevin's son-in-law Tom Nixon, and Lonnie Warsaw, the BA from our union,
local 888 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, were all on the
scene, negotiating with the paint shop guys.
By lunchtime, the bosses agreed to get eyewash stations and fire
extinguishers by the next day. The paintshop got more fans. And, the
guys with asthma were immediately transferred to the warehouse that
As we can see, the best way to quickly stop safety problems on a job is
for workers to stand together, stop working, and demand that the bosses
immediately correct the problems. Walking out is far more effective
than waiting for OSHA or the BA or the union's health and safety
department. And, safety strikes could also be used by non union
workers..in fact, it might be a way of them becoming unionized.
The question is, since this method of correcting safety problems on the
job is so amazingly effective, why don't the unions encourage it?
It's an ideological thing..and the ideology is something called
Business unionism is the idea that workers and bosses have common
interests, and the job of the unions is to promote labor management
partnership and collaberation between the working class and the bosses.
Of course, that idea is 100% false. We as workers do not have any
common interests with our bosses.
The businesspeople profit from our labor, and we get paid a small
portion of what we produce in return.
Even union construction workers, who often get paid up to $ 40/hr in
wages and an additional $ 30 per hr in benefits, are paid far less than
the $ 250 or more an hour in value added by labor that we produce.
That's why we have safety problems on our jobs... You see, the more we
produce per hour, the higher the profits are for the contractors,
developers and mortgage bankers. That's why they make us work fast,
even if it means we have to work unsafe.
Some "class partnership"..our blood, and their money...
Obviously, workers and bosses have a conflict of interest..
"Revolutionary Unionism" recognizes that conflict.
What is revolutionary unionism?
I've talked about revolutionary unionism on the GANGBOX website before,
and on the GANGBOX listserv, at:
Basically, revolutionary unionism is a system that recognizes that
fundamental contradiction between workers and businesspeople under the
How would revolutionary craft unions in the construction trades deal
with health and safety? How would they help us protect ourselves on the
These unions would have a strong shop steward system on the job, with
each contractor having a shop steward for each craft on each site, as
well as a company-wide general shop steward for each craft.
The job stewards would have the authority to stop the job if there was
any threat to worker health or safety, as well as the right to stop
work for any other kind of greivance (workers not being paid union
scale, discrimination or any other conflict that might come up on a
The workers on the site would have the right to refuse to work for 3
days. After 3 days, the union would steip in, and, if the safety
situation had not been resolved to the workers satisfaction, then the
work stoppage would become an officially sanctioned strike, and would
be spread to every single job being run by that contractor.
Of course, workplace safety and health is just as big an issue for the
majority of construction workers who are non union as it is for the 20%
of the business who are lucky enough to have union books.
Realistically, the only way that the non union tradespeople can get
jobsite safety is to strike for it. In fact, the only way they can get
unionized is by striking for it..and, the safety thing might be the
hook that we can use to get these workers to walk out as a group, and
force their contractors to unionize.
And I'm not talking about non union workers striking one company at a
time..that would be stupid and self defeating. The only way we can
organize the non union is having city or area-wide strikes of all the
non union workers in each craft, until all the employers in that
business in that vicinity are unionized.
That's how the socialists, communists and anarchists who unionized our
industry back in the 19th century used to organize..they called these
strikes "trade movements". And, even today, those methods still work,
that's how the Mexican immigrant residential drywall carpenters in
Southern California were able to organize themselves into the
Carpenters Union back in 1991.
I've written about trade movement-style organizing on GANGBOX before,
But, for revolutionary unions to do all these things, they'd have to
have a basically different structure than today's unions do.
Business unions are essentially run like despotisms, controlled by all
powerful union officers who have minimal accountablity to the members
By contrast, revolutionary unions would be extremely democratic.
The most powerful leadership body in a revolutionary union would be a
Council of Delegates. The members of the council would be rank and file
journeylevel tradespeople, with at least 5 years in the trade. They
would be elected by a one member one vote secret ballot to a single 3
year, non re electable term of office. After serving that term, they
would have to return to their tools for a minimum of 3 years, before
running for any other elected position.
In local unions and District Councils, the Delegates would continue to
work while in office, and would be given paid release time from their
jobs to attend Council meetings and carry out other union business.
Council Delegates on the International Union level would serve full
time, and recieve a salary and benefits equivilant to what a
journeylevel worker in that trade would get for a 40 hour week.
The Council of Delegates would be the union's main executive and
legislative body, deciding on all questions of union policy, conducting
the union's collective bargaining negotiations with the employers,
supervising the work of the union's staff, officers and BAs and having
the power to impeach officers and BAs and fire staffers who are
incompetent or corrupt.
There would still be officers and BAs on the local union level, but
they would be subordinate to the Delegates. The officers and BAs would
be elected by the members, by a one member one vote secret ballor,
would recieve a salary equivliant to what the tradespeople get in the
field for a 40 hour week and, after serving a single 3 year non re
electable term of office, would have to return to work as a regular
worker for at least 3 years before running for any other union office.
When it comes to job safety and health, the job of the officers and BAs
would be to assist shop stewards in stopping unsafe and unhealthy work
pratices, including assisting stewards in conducting jobsite work
stoppages and strikes.
There would also be union Health and Safety Departments, run by elected
delegates elected under the same terms as the Delegates to the Council
One of the main jobs of these H & S Departments would be educating
apprentices and journeylevel workers on safety and health hazards.
To do that, they would have to prepare research and training materials
that are relevant to our industry, designed to be read by a
multilingual workforce with different reading levels, and, above all,
are based on the concept that the main cause of construction accidents
is CONTRACTOR NEGLIGANCE, not "worker carelessness".
The H & S Departments would also provide forensic research support for
stewards, officers, BAs, delegates and union lawyers who are trying to
make cases against unsafe employers by documenting the employer
negligance and recklessness that led to worker injuries, illnesses or
The H & S Departments on the International Union levels would be set up
the same way..run by elected delegates, with the missions of preparing
pro-worker construction safety material, and helping the union enforce
safety and health rules on the job. The International Union H & S
Departments would also have a competent staff of industrial hygenists,
doctors and other professionals who would conduct scientific research
on construction health and safety issues.
But, the union can only do so much when workers are scared that they'd
lose their jobs if they stood up for themselves. That's why we need to
take control of hiring and firing away from the contractors.
So, the local unions and or District Councils would have Out of Work
List Committees, composed of delegates elected under the same rules as
the Council of Delegates.
The Out of Work List Committees would enforce a 90/10 hiring system on
the contractors. That is, a contractor would be permitted to select 5
of his/her first 10 employees from any source, as long as they were
union members. But, the other 5 workers would be hired from the union's
out of work list. After the 11th worker, 90% of the employer's workers
would come from the union out of work list, with a maximum of 10% being
company men selected by the employer.
Unlike the present pratice, where union construction workers are hired
by the day and are considered "at will employees" who can be fired at
any time for any reason or no reason, the contractors would have to
treat these workers as full time employees, taking them from job to job
and site to site as long as there was available work.
If the boss had to do a layoff, the workers would be let go based on
seniority..that is, last worker hired, first worker laid off. This
principle has been praticed by other unions for over 80 years, but is
unknown in the construction industry..and it's about time we got that
If an employer wanted to fire a worker for bad conduct, they would have
to go to a union Trial Committee, composed of delegates elected under
the same terms as the Council of Delegates. The worker would remain on
the employer's payroll, suspended but still getting paid, until and
unless the Trial Committee ruled that the employer had just cause to
fire that person.
Incidentally, the Trial Committee would also serve as the union's main
judicial body, and would rule on all cases where members were brought
up on charges, and would carry out the trials of union officers and BAs
who were impeached.
But, the main job of the Trial Committee would be ruling on employer
attempts to fire workers.
And, having the union take control of hiring, layoffs and firings would
go a long way to getting construction workers the kind of basic job
security that other union workers have had for almost 100 years.
Workers who have job security are more likely to refuse to work in an
unsafe way, and to take agressive stops to prevent employers from
pushing workers to work in an unsafe way.
As for the 80% of our industry who are non union...the only way that
the unions can protect their safety is to organize them. The unions
would have Organizing Committees, composed of elected delegates, that
would carry out that function, using the kind of areawide "trade
movement" strikes that I described above.
Of course, these are all very radical ideas, and it would take a lot of
struggle by construction workers to carry out the kind of changes that
it would take to reorient our unions so they can fight to keep us safe.
And, if construction tradespeople were to try and fight for these
changes, we'd face lots of oppostion..from the subcontractors, the GCs,
the developers, the mortgage bankers, the politicians and even from the
present leaders of our own unions.
But, the alternative is to let the canage keep going on, and to keep
letting our brothers and sisters get killed, maimed and sickened..and,
for that matter, to keep risking our own lives and health every time we
walk onto a jobsite.
And that is not an acceptable alternative.
Thats it for now.
Be union, work safe.
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