Fall down on the job and you fall alone
Expanded from the 11-14-99 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune
Nevada, long known for fast living, is becoming famous for fast dying. Workers have been dropping like flies, figuratively and literally. In July, 24 year-old James Arthur Greenleaf IV fell to his death at a south Reno apartment construction site. Had he been required to wear proper safety harness, he'd be alive.
On October 23, a worker died in an underground cave-in at the Ken Snyder Mine northeast of Golconda in northeastern Nevada.
A collapse at the Turquoise Ridge Mine near Golconda killed two in a cave-in Oct. 12. On Sept. 6 down south in Henderson, construction worker Kenn Egbert died a ghastly death in a 20-foot-deep trench lacking federally required wall supports.
What's the state's answer? For those who survive accidents alive, privatize the injured workers' health insurance system. Now, instead of a stingy, unresponsive state bureaucracy looking for any excuse to deny your claim, you have to deal with stingy, profit-gouging private insurance companies looking for any excuse to deny your claim.
"In 1997, the last year for which complete records are available, Nevada construction workers were 30 percent more likely to be injured than the national average, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics," the Las Vegas Sun reported last month.
"More than 10,000 construction workers in Nevada were injured on the job in 1997. Fatal falls, broken backs and lost limbs are among the accidents that workers' advocates argue wouldn't happen if construction companies in Nevada paid more attention to safety. Too often, the critics say, the price of building homes and businesses to serve a population growing by 60,000 a year has been paid in blood," wrote Sun reporter Launce Rake.
"Workers say that the true picture is actually worse -- that the number of injuries is far higher because perhaps 50 percent of construction-related accidents are never reported," the Sun continued.
"On one issue the unions and contractors agree: out-of-state and fly-by-night contractors are flocking to the Las Vegas area, and they usually have the worst safety records...Union organizers, however, say the (Nevada State) contractors' board is much too cozy with the industry it is supposed to regulate. It could pull the licenses of companies that have significant safety violations, but that rarely, if ever, happens," the Sun reported.
The paper editorially called for hiring more state inspectors. The current crew of 12 would need 30 years to look over every construction site in Nevada, according to AFL-CIO estimates.
"In Nevada, the injury rate for people in the construction industry was 12.6 per 100 workers, third worst in the nation and significantly higher than the national average of 9.6 injuries per 100 construction workers," the Sun reported.
Unions in all parts of the state are increasing pressure to get existing laws enforced and to have lawbreaking contractors punished, but the oldest rule of all still applies. From payment of proper wages, to health and safety on the job and insurance for needed bodywork if injured, Nevada workers largely labor at their own risk.
A leader has stepped forward to address such problems, State Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks.
Acting on his own initiative (translation: Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, or Sen. Ann O'Connell, R-Las Vegas, gave him permission), Rev. Washington put together a meeting with fellow lawmakers at Sparks City Hall last July.
You never heard about it? Shame on you. Notices were posted in several places in Carson City and "faxed for posting" in Las Vegas and Sparks.
I doubt seriously it was posted in these parts. Had it been, the whole town would have shown up because everybody reads the bulletin board at the bustling Sparks council chambers, don't they?
Despite all the publicity, attendance proved inexplicably minimal. Former Sparks mayor Jim Spoo, Washington's 1998 Democratic opponent, showed up as attorney for some roofing outfits. Roofing company owner Dan Hansen, patriarch of Sparks' answer to the Addams Family, brought two additional Hansens in order to give lawmakers a good cross-section of family opinion.
A followup meeting was held last Tuesday at the legislative building in Carson City. This time, Sen. Washington didn't waste fax paper. He didn't inform the public at all.
I got a tip about it from Tom Stoneburner at the Alliance for Workers Rights and let some union guys know to show up.
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These "hearings" will produce legislation making workers responsible for safety violations rather than employers.
The Builders Association of Northern Nevada wants an appeals board made up strictly of employers. Seems unnecessary if injured workers must henceforth automatically shoulder both blame and broken bones. Hansen wants the entire state safety agency eliminated.
According to the July minutes (no record was kept of last week's love fest), Mr. Hansen "declared that the industry is capable of self-governing the construction business. He urged the committee to 'get back to basics.'"
My favorite comment came from one Mark Donahue representing a Las Vegas outfit named Cedar Roofing which "has received a total of $11,400 in fines in less than one year," according to the July minutes.
"He spoke of the 'boom' in construction throughout the state and how difficult it is...for an employer who has a reputation for adhering to OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration) rules to attract employees."
Let me see if I've got this right: Workers won't work for a company which forces them to avoid death and dismemberment. The answer lies in removing all regulation, making the workers responsible only to themselves and removing their employers from any responsibility at all.
I was informed by a state safety official last Friday that an employee of Cedar Roofing died in a fall last week in Henderson.
Be well. Raise hell.
© Andrew Barbano
Andrew Barbano is a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of U-News, where the past three years of columns may be accessed. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks Tribune since 1988 where an earlier version of this column appeared on 11/14/99.
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