Long-term view

Thursday, October 19, 2006
Trusses were lowered by crane onto a house off Greenbrier Drive. On Wednesday, more than 80 home builders attended an OSHA seminar on how to reduce the likelihood of injuries. (Diane L. Wilson)

When most people walk onto a job site, they see a hive of activity: Cranes lift wood planks, electric drills whir and workers hammer nails.

Leland Darrow sees injuries waiting to happen.

"Let's be honest. At a job site there's no reason why people should be falling or why people should be blinded by things. These are just dumb injuries," he said.

Darrow, a supervisor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, was at Cape Girardeau's Osage Community Centre on Wednesday to give a seminar to about 85 local home builders. He told builders how to decrease the likelihood of potentially fatal injuries and reduce their own liability should an accident occur.

The federal agency is in charge of enforcement of safety and health legislation in the workplace. Its officials conduct surprise inspections and mete out penalties when they find unsafe conditions.

This, Darrow said, hurts in the short run but saves in the long run.

"We're all in the same boat here; we need to strive to cut down on all the needless expenses," he said. "OSHA is not your enemy. We've got to get rid of that concept."

OSHA calculates that U.S. workers lose $1,200 per year in income due to serious injuries in the workplace. OSHA's penalties range as high as $70,000 but, according to the agency, are designed to be 10 cents for every dollar a resulting injury would cost. Darrow said a broken arm on the job costs the employer $15,000 and a smashed ankle as much as $100,000 including surgery and rehabilitation.

The builders were listening.

"It's not the dollar figure, it's the people," said Mark Camren of Columbia Construction, which has been visited by OSHA inspectors over fall-hazard safety. "The thing that always gets through to me is I don't want to have to go to somebody's house and tell them their father isn't coming home."

Others said they appreciate the seriousness but find some of OSHA's restrictions unreasonable. Particularly unpopular is a policy adopted in 1985 that holds general contractors responsible for the safety of every employee on a site.

"I can't be on a job every minute of every day," said Brandon Williams of Williams Brothers Contracting. "If I tell one of my subcontractors they're noncompliant or in violation, they might fix it while I'm there, but when I leave, it's human nature, they'll go back to what they were doing before."

Williams said he has never had a fall on one of his jobs. But he oversees seven or eight jobs at the same time and says he can't always micromanage his sites the way OSHA demands.

"They have a job to do and I have a job to do, but we agree, we don't ever want to see any employees go home hurt," he said.

And the opportunities for injuries are everywhere.

A six-foot fall to the ground is 20 percent likely to result in death. Raise the height to 10 feet and the likelihood increases to 50 percent.

Power tools can be deadly too. A full-grown man can be killed by one-75th of an amp of electricity. The typical home socket has 20 amps.

Other dangers are harder to see. Silica dust from concrete work is ubiquitous on certain jobs. When inhaled, it is just as likely to cause lung problems and cancer as the better known killer: asbestos.

These aren't even the top killers of construction workers. That title goes to melanoma, the skin cancer resulting from prolonged sun exposure that takes the lives of more retired workers than any other affliction. OSHA does have a sunscreen requirement in its guidelines.

All this is why Darrow warned those present they have to play the role of military general with their employees. "You cannot afford not to be ruthless," he said.

Darrow believes this ruthlessness pays dividends. Since OSHA's creation in 1971, on-the-job deaths have decreased from 20,000 per year to 5,900 in 2001. Crippling injuries have reduced by half, according to the agency.

Bruce Bird, apprenticeship coordinator for the local Carpenters' District Council, sees that progress to be worth the time and money.

"I'm a firm believer in OSHA because without it, it would just be a savage world as far as the American worker is concerned," he said.

tgreaney@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 245

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