This week, the Maryland General Assembly will review new legislation that could help ensure safer workplaces in the state’s construction industry. The proposal, which is a type of “responsible contracting” legislation similar to other policies being tested out in states and municipalities across the country, would require companies that put in bids for work on public works projects in Maryland to attest that they have workplace health and safety programs and that they would implement the programs in construction projects done on the public dime.
It’s an important piece of legislation, given the dangers in the industry. As we noted in our Winning Safer Workplaces manual,
"Construction is one of the most hazardous industries for workers. Frequent injuries and deaths from falls, electrocutions, and striking objects impose unbearably high costs on individuals, families, and local economies. Public Citizen estimates that, 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 lost quality of life. The firms responsible for many of these injuries and fatalities, and those with histories of citations for unsafe practices, continue to receive contracts from state and local governments."
Today, the House Economic Matters committee will hear testimony on a proposal to use the Maryland government’s vast purchasing power as a tool for promoting safer construction work practices. I submitted testimony in support of the bill because it is a smart way to ensure workers are being protected in a state where the AFL-CIO estimates it would take 108 years for occupational health and safety inspectors to visit every workplace.
A key to the legislation is a requirement that the Maryland Department of Labor Licensing and Regulation (DLLR) develop a standardized questionnaire and rating system that would apply to firms awarded contracts valued at $100,000 or more. The results of a the rating system would be used to determine whether additional safety measures beyond the firm’s existing health and safety program are necessary to protect Maryland workers. In my testimony, I noted that the questionnaire and rating system will best promote worker safety if they emphasize,
"The firm’s broader safety culture, including: the use of written, site-specific safety plans; the level of employee participation in identifying and resolving hazards; and the quality of safety training for workers and supervisors. As a result, firms will not have to fear being penalized based on just one or two idiosyncratic aspects of their record, if they otherwise have a strong safety culture."
Also critical to the legislation is its enforcement structure. It provides avenues for issuing penalties to employers who submit false information to the DLLR in response to the questionnaire or otherwise violate the law’s provisions. It even promotes debarment of firms that are repeat offenders. We recommended such punitive efforts as part of wider efforts to raise local and state contractor worker health and safety standards in our “Winning Safer Workplaces” manual.
If implemented successfully, this legislation could have a significant positive effect on the safety practices at firms that employ some of the state’s more vulnerable workers. Construction bosses are notorious for putting production and profits ahead of safety, banking on the expectation that workers will not speak up for fear of losing their job to the many other people with the basic skills to do some of the most dangerous work. This legislation could help fight that problem, by demanding that companies establish and implement safety and health programs, by providing for enforcement by DLLR, and by creating specific whistleblower protections for workers who speak up about lapses in those programs.
The legislation is an important step toward safer workplaces in Maryland and other states could learn a lot from how it moves forward from here.