Holding Government Contractors Accountable for Worker Safety and Health
Without robust policies to ensure that government contractors have effective workplace health and safety programs, government agencies run the risk of subsidizing construction firms that operate hazardous worksites. Agencies typically hire the lowest bidder, so companies that cut corners on worker health and safety on the assumption that it reduces project costs may be rewarded with lucrative government contracts.
Because many agencies fail to ensure government contracts are only awarded to responsible contractors, firms with histories of citations for unsafe practices continue to receive contracts for state and local public projects. By failing to set a high standard for worker safety in their public works projects, state and local authorities are missing a major opportunity to reshape the market and incentivize safer worksites throughout the industry.
What’s the Solution?
In all states, advocates could campaign for legislation that would require state and local agencies to consider a bidder’s OHS policies and performance before awarding public contracts. The most effective way to implement this requirement would be through a prequalification process, in which firms are not allowed to enter bids until they pass a rigorous OHS evaluation. This requirement should apply to both general contractors and subcontractors seeking to work on public projects, to ensure that all companies involved in managing the worksite pass muster.
Debarment, or prohibiting noncompliant companies from receiving contracts, is another critical issue. Creating the possibility that a firm could be prohibited from bidding on or receiving government contracts would allow state legislatures or local governments to establish significant economic incentives for firms to improve their OHS programs. Just as prequalification ensures that worker safety is taken into account at the front end of the public bid process, state and local agencies need the authority to debar irresponsible contractors from bidding on future contracts based on chronic safety violations, either for a fixed period of time or permanently (depending on the severity of the violations).
Government Contracting and the Construction Industry. Construction is one of the most hazardous industries for workers. According to a series of reports by Public Citizen, between 2008 and 2010, fatal and nonfatal construction injuries cost the states of Maryland $713 million, Washington $762 million, and California $2.9 billion in medical services, lost productivity, administrative expenses, and diminished quality of life.
States with Existing OHS Prequalification Programs. Massachusetts requires prequalification for contractors and subcontractors bidding on projects costing $100,000 or more. Connecticut requires prequalification for projects costing more than $500,000. Tennessee requires contractors who have already been awarded contracts by the state’s Department of Transportation to certify that they have an effective employee safety and health program before work may begin. California does not require agencies to adopt a prequalification system, but for those agencies that choose to, the state has developed a model questionnaire with scoring guidelines.
Model Bill for Establishing a Prequalification System. Public Citizen and the National Council of Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) have urged state and local officials to consider bidders’ safety records before awarding public contracts, and have developed a strong model bill for state legislatures to use in designing a prequalification system. Bills closely resembling the model legislation have been introduced in Maryland, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
State Legislation on Debarment. Maryland adopted legislation in 2014 that prohibits people from entering into contracts with the state if they have been convicted of breaking any of several state or federal laws, including laws addressing wage payment and workplace health and safety.