Across the U.S., an ongoing shortage of inspectors at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration
is putting workers’ lives at risk. But IBEW locals are stepping in to help fill
Locals across multiple states are working with OSHA’s Strategic Partnership Program, helping inspectors gain a more complete understanding of workplace safety.
“Our participation in the SPP won’t totally solve OSHA’s staffing and training problems,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “But it makes perfect sense for us to leverage our training and collective know-how to help make sure the OSHA inspectors who are still on the payroll know how to identify and fix safety hazards.”
There are fewer than 900 OSHA inspectors available to check up on nearly 9 million workplaces in the U.S., according to data compiled by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. Research by the National Employment Law Project found that inspector vacancies are rising as hiring of replacements is slowing, which corresponds with a nearly 10% rise in the number of workplace fatalities and injuries between 2017 and 2018.
Administered through OSHA’s 10 regional offices, the voluntary SPP is designed to promote a better understanding about the on-the-job hazards that workers in the construction trades face, giving unions, contractors and regulators the means to jointly conduct regular hands-on training, jobsite walk-throughs and spot checks.
“Electrical workers have a real stake in relationships like this,” said the IBEW’s Director of Safety Dave Mullen. “If inspectors aren’t properly trained, unscrupulous contractors could be tempted to try and get away with safety violations, and that could put our members — and all workers — in serious danger.”
Des Moines, Iowa, Local 55’s connection with the SPP goes back a few years, said Business Manager Mike Sawyer. “It’s helped a lot, especially on accident prevention,” he said.
Sawyer said the program is beneficial. “Lots of doors to more work open up because of it,” he said. And because job safety and training benefit contractors, too, the local — which just signed another multi-year agreement with the agency — continues to work on getting more of them to join the effort.
OSHA recently sent some of its inspectors in Iowa through training to get a more complete picture of the type of education electrical workers receive, Sawyer said. This “rubber glove” approach typically covers a thorough range of safety regulations and applicable industry standards and regulations.
The SPP also has shown benefits for members of Eau Claire, Wisc., Local 14, who over the summer finished construction of a new University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire student residence hall plus top-to-bottom renovations of a pair of 1960s-era dormitory towers.
“Once a month, we’d go through the sites — every floor, every room — and identify and address hazards,” said Local 14 Business Manager Mark Lauer. No detail was too small as the team looked at everything from power tools and scaffolding to environmental controls and mobile equipment.
The Eau Claire team included representatives from Local 14 and other construction trades unions, contractors, OSHA, and the state safety and health agency known as WisCon.
After the jobsite walk-throughs, “we would sit down and review the hazards that we had personally identified,” Lauer said. “We would go around the room, one by one, until everyone had been heard. Meetings could be five hours long sometimes.
“It was clear throughout this process that the building trades led the discussion,” he said. “Our safety training is by far the best in the industry.”
In Ohio, at least two local unions — Columbus Local 683 and Newark Local 1105 — are participating in the SPP. Mike Bednarczuk, Local 1105’s training director, said that his local, its contractors and OSHA enjoy a positive collective relationship as a result of the program.
“We get a regular rundown from OSHA on current hot topics, and that gives us some insight into issues that they feel they need inspectors to focus on,” he said.
Recently, the Newark team discussed changes in the American National Standards Institute’s criteria concerning “Mobile Elevating Work Platforms,” also known as lifts.
“It gives us a heads up and lets us know that we’re going to need to adjust our training,” Bednarczuk said. “It puts us right on the leading edge. We have a rapport with them that feels truly unique.”
The training director believes that such partnerships with OSHA can be great marketing tools for everyone involved. “Put this out there where people can see it, so everybody knows about it,” he said.
Above all, partnerships like SPP have the potential to help make our workplaces safer and keep workers safe, Mullen said. “Saving workers’ lives is reason enough for us to take an active role in educating OSHA’s inspectors about what to look for on job sites,” he said. “Electrical workers certainly have ample know-how to get it done, and our training is second to none.”
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