April 2011

Spotlight On Safety
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Renewed OSHA Partnership Saves Lives in
Line Construction

Paul Loughran, a 41-year lineman, tells apprentices that being part of the IBEW is an incredible work opportunity. Then, Loughran, safety director of Boston Local 104, bluntly counsels, "But it won't be incredible if you don't work safely. Your days could be numbered."

Loughran's passion for job safety is driven by accident investigations into fatalities in the five-state region covered by his local union. He says he's been with families as the conditions of their loved ones went from "dire to terrible."

"Every detail of the four fatalities I investigated are emblazoned in my mind," says Loughran, who was appointed three years ago by International President Edwin D. Hill as an IBEW representative for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's strategic partnership with power transmission companies to reduce worker injuries and deaths.

The OSHA partnership, founded in 2004, says Loughran, is an opportunity to set up minimum standards for safety in an industry where he knows—from long years traveling for work across the U.S.—that work practices vary widely.

The strategic partnership, which was renewed in January for another three years, includes IBEW, Asplundh Tree Expert Co., Edison Electric Institute, Henkels & McCoy, MDU Construction Services Group Inc., MYR Group Inc., Pike Electric Inc., Quanta Services and the National Electrical Contractors Association.

Sitting down at the same table with union and nonunion contractors offers the opportunity to raise the standards of the entire industry, says IBEW Safety and Health Department Director Jim Tomaseski. Changes in ownership in the construction sector, he says, have led to more "double-breasted" contractors, incorporating both union and nonunion divisions. Even Pike Electric, a longtime open shop outfit, now includes Klondyke, a Phoenix-based signatory contractor.

Last year, as a result of the partnership's work, IBEW locals representing outside linemen received new best practice recommendations to protect workers from falls when working on wood poles. One of the partnership's unprecedented accomplishments, says Tomaseski, is bringing together "OSHA Form 300" logs that detail reportable injuries of six contractors into a common database. More data, he says, will lead to sharper, more effective safety practices.

"Statistics don't lie," says Tomaseski. "Neither does the pain and suffering of families of members who experience injuries or die on the job."

Sending out recommendations is only a piece of the painstaking process of changing work culture. Seattle Local 77 Construction Business Representative Rick Strait, who works with Loughran on the strategic partnership says, "It's a big step from where we sit in offices to guys practicing safety on the job." The pressures of performance, he says, can't be minimized. "It's a pace issue," he says.

Strait, a 40-year IBEW member who worked 35 years with his tools as an outside lineman before his current full-time assignment, has seen big advances in safety through the OSHA partnership and similar efforts between employers and the IBEW. "Even though contractors always jockey for the work," he says, "safety is more often part of the discussion." And more contractors are reaching out to the union to pre-plan projects, not just for speed, but for safety. Loughran sees a more safety-conscious union membership. "Good common sense can overcome resistance," he says.

Answering the politicians who are calling for less government regulation and defunding OSHA, Loughran says the strategic partnership is an example of how government can be a catalyst for unions and businesses to do their jobs better. "A safer workplace is a more productive workplace," he says.

"The OSHA partnership crosses a lot of boundaries that we haven't crossed before," says Strait, noting that traditionally the West lagged behind the East in enforcing safety standards in outside construction. "We don't hit home runs. It's incremental change," he says. But, Strait, who said he often thinks of a 25-year journeyman lineman co-worker who was rendered mentally disabled after an accident, says, "We're at the table and lives are being saved."

A strategic partnership of union, management and OSHA representatives has improved safety of linemen and other classifications in the outside utility branch.