A new Occupational Safety and Health Administration directive aims to improve communication between OSHA and families of workers who die on the job. The new guidance updates a 2012 OSHA directive that set a procedural standard for handling worker fatalities but had since become outdated:
"This Instruction provides guidance to ensure the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) communicates its fatality inspection procedures to the victim’s family and facilitates the exchange of information throughout the inspection and settlement process."
This new directive helps to alleviate uncertainty and confusion in the aftermath of the unthinkable. However, these tough conversations would not be necessary if union safety standards were the norm throughout the construction industry.
Last year, BDN highlighted the story of Isidro Gonzalez Reyes, a worker who lost his life on a nonunion Wermers site in Kearny Mesa, San Diego. Reyes died when he was crushed by a crane; its backup alarm had been allegedly turned off after noise complaints from nearby residents. The death of Mr. Reyes went unreported in the media and was unacknowledged by the employer. Mr. Reyes’s family were left with questions and very little in the way of support from the conglomerate of contractor and subcontractors that served as his employer on the site.
Better communication during the investigation
In the event of a job site fatality, the investigation process is an especially trying time for loved ones of the deceased. "A sudden, shocking death in the workplace is a terrible experience for surviving family members. In the past, communication with OSHA has not always been consistent, at a time when families need answers and solid information," said a supporter of the directive, Holly Shaw-Hollis, whose husband died on a job site in 2002.
The new OSHA directive aims to increase transparency and provide a measure of closure with the circumstances surrounding the unfortunate event. Families will be updated during every step of the process and caseworkers will be tasked with providing answers and resources when needed.
Organizations supporting the families of workers killed or injured on the job, such as United Support & Memorial for Workplace Families (USMWF), have been calling for a more open and systematic rapport between grieving families and OSHA in the event of an investigation. These organizations are supportive of the new directive and its aim of helping family members by keeping them abreast of each step in the process.
"Previously, families may not even have known there was an inspection until it came out in the media," said Tammy Spivey, founder of Families (USMWF), which played an important role in helping make the 2012 directive a reality. "Considering how personal this is to families after a loss, this was a milestone and truly helps family members receive the closure they deserve. It answers many questions they may have regarding their loss."
The new directive re-establishes and bolsters communication between OSHA, the Department of Labor, support systems like USMWF, and families of the deceased.
"Although our connection and communication over the past few years had declined, we are thrilled to once again be working directly with the U.S. Department of Labor and OSHA administration in communicating and assisting each other in helping and guiding our family member victims," added USMWF Executive Director Tonya Ford.
The OSHA investigation process is important in the aftermath of a fatal event but equally important is addressing the missteps that lead to these situations. A 2020 report from the New York Committee of Occupational Safety and Health found that 86% of workers who perished on private job sites were nonunion. And a 2021 Bureau of Labor Statistics study found that there was a 37% higher rate of workplace deaths in states with anti-union "right-to-work" legislation in place.
The discrepancy in safety protocols between union sites and nonunion job sites leads to significantly more fatalities on nonunion sites. In another recent study of OSHA inspections at construction sites by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, it was concluded that non-unionized sites face 34% more safety violations per inspection.
The study asserts that “across the United States, union construction worksites are safer than nonunion construction worksites. This is in part because the union construction industry trains its workforce in rigorous joint labor-management apprenticeship programs that prioritize safety and productivity.”
In California, many union companies proactively participate in programs such as CAL/OSHA's “Golden Gate Partnership Program” which awards certificates to worksites that have impeccable safety standards. In 2022, Hathaway Dinwiddie Construction, Largo Concrete, Swinerton Builders, and thirty-two others have already invited CAL/OSHA for on-site visits and have achieved certification as "Golden Gate Partners."
Mitigating the need
The update to the directive and the continued need for this guidance is demonstrative of the high number of accidents that plague the construction industry year after year. According to OSHA, 1 in 5 deaths among U.S. workers is in the construction industry.
Union job sites are less likely to incur health and safety violations which ultimately translates to fewer injuries or fatalities. Union job sites utilize skilled workers who are safe and practice precautionary measures while their employers promote an environment that is transparent and follows protocol.
Established protocol and accountability on union job sites ensure that if the unthinkable does happen, the interests of the deceased will be better addressed and cooperation between authorities, the union, and families of the deceased, will lead to full accountability and reconciliation. The aforementioned case of Isidro Gonzalez exemplifies the lack of these processes. Increasing transparency after a fatality is a start but authorities will find this difficult if there continues to be criminality that leads to the unfortunate loss of life. Increasing safety measures and accountability will negate the need for these difficult conversations in the first place.
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