After Tappan Zee Bridge Collapse: Construction Worker Rights and Protections

Tuesday, a giant crane collapsed on the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York. While five people were treated for minor injuries, miraculously no one was seriously hurt or killed.

No cars were hit by debris and no workers where in the way of (or atop) the falling crane.

That isn’t always the case, however. Construction workers are continuously at serious risk of being injured or killed on the job. 

It’s estimated that 20 percent of all worker deaths, of which there were 4,679 in 2014, happen in construction. Despite safety regulations, inspections and protections, accidents still occur. Construction is a naturally dangerous occupation to begin with, but some of these tragic accidents could be easily avoided. That’s where the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) comes in.

What Is OSHA?

The government agency was created in complement with the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which became official in 1971. Before then, workplace regulations and safety were of little concern, especially in construction, and the welfare of the workers was held in low regard. From World War II to the time of the Act’s passing, mass production was of the utmost importance, and companies as well as the federal government paid little mind to workplace safety. There was no watershed moment that suddenly changed this mindset, but rather a slow building of concern which was closely related to chemicals being used in many products.

Before OSHA, the phrase “occupational hazard” was prevalent in the workplace. There was a general mindset of just shrugging the shoulders and accepting the dangers, no matter how preventable, of work.  In 1970, the year before the Act became law, there were approximately 14,000 worker deaths. The industry has come a long way in general since the enactment of the law and the creation of OSHA, and it shows when comparing this worker death statistic. Overall, OSHA has a $550 million budget and conducts approximately 40,000 inspections every year.

What Types of Protection Does OSHA Provide?

For the worker, the security in knowing that all companies are held to the same standard of liability can be comforting. That doesn’t mean that the company will try and work their way out of a lawsuit or try to suppress the worker’s voice if they ever bring a problem out into the open. Take for example the case of a U.S. Postal Service worker, who was punished, demoted and silenced purely for standing up for his rights as a worker. People like this are the only reason that OSHA can even know about the problems that exist and send one of their 8,000 inspectors to investigate them. So when OSHA got word of this atrocity at the USPS, a lawsuit was filed and the worker was awarded $229,000 in damages.

In addition to these protections, OSHA requires that companies be not just reactionary, but preventative when it comes to the potential for injuries. If a company gets lazy or frugal, it usually backfires on them drastically. The recent case against Lloyd Industries found gross negligence for an easily correctable problem. A malfunctioning press brake machine caused one worker to lose three fingers due to the lack of safety guards. The company knew the machine didn’t have guards, and worse yet made the conscious decision not to put them on because it slowed production. They were fined $822,000, which shows that if a company tries to skirt safety regulations, they will pay for it in the long run.

What Are My Options As a Worker?

These examples show the dedication OSHA has towards protecting a worker from injuries and holding companies accountable for any indiscretions. This is important in any position for which physical labor or the operation of machinery is required, but particularly in the realm of construction. As previously mentioned, most worker’s compensation claims involving injuries happen here. There are even categories into which these injuries are broken down, known as the “fatal four:” falls, electrocution, struck by object, caught in/between. OSHA has detailed protocol for how they handle these cases, including everything from how strict the penalty will be to the priority of the investigation, which will be discussed in greater detail in just a moment. As a worker, all you care about is the process for filing a claim if it becomes necessary.

There are options in terms of how you can file the initial claim, and while OSHA is able to respond more quickly to complaints through phone or fax, a written complaint must be filed if a worker believes an on-site inspection to be necessary. Before anything is filed to OSHA however, there are a few things you must do:

  • Notify any injuries to your employer/manager. Remember to keep track of names and contact information of anyone to whom you’ve spoken.
  • Preserve any evidence, if possible. Take photographs, document the equipment used, note any circumstances which may have caused the accident.
  • If there was an injury, keep track of all medical expenses. Worker’s comp claims operate on a “no-fault” system, which means that all you have to do is prove that you were injured, and that said injury occurred during the normal scope of employment.

Now, it’s quite possible that your company will do its diligence and fulfill all of their responsibilities. They will compensate you for any injuries, they will handle any claims you make with care, and they will overall treat you with respect. But if this does not happen, and you need to file a complaint to OSHA, here’s what you need to know:

  • The process is completely confidential. Your employer will have no knowledge of who filed the complaint, and you even have the right to have a representative be present during an inspection, which is chosen by you or the union, and not the employer.
  • They will determine whether imminent danger still exists; that is, could the equipment that caused the injury cause another in the near future, and is the threat fatal?
  • A worker has whistleblower protections as well. This means that if you were punished by the company for reporting something, you would be due proper compensation. You also have the right to refuse to work if you believe the situation to be too dangerous.

All of this is part of the OSHA investigation process, which is very thorough and follows a specific set of guidelines.

What Happens During an OSHA Inspection?

If an on-site inspection is required, OSHA has a lengthy procedure checklist to follow, pending the type of claim that has been filed. First, they determine whether it will be complete or partial. Complete is sort of a misnomer, as not everything on the job site will be inspected. A partial focuses on hazardous areas and conditions that may be harmful. After the scope is determined, many other things are considered.

  • Time – Except under special circumstances, all inspections are conducted during normal business hours.
  • The owner of the establishment is then located, and credentials are presented. If the owner refuses or interferes with the inspection in any way, it is reported and legal action is potentially taken.
  • OSHA has the right to obtain anything it deems necessary, including documents, testimony, and any other relevant information pertaining to the case.
  • At the conclusion of the inspection, a conference with the employer, their representatives and the inspector takes place. The purpose of this is to lay out any violations that were found, the employers is given the right to appeal and/or have more meetings if they feel it needs to be discussed further.

These investigations are intended to focus primarily on the preventability of the accident. Again, it comes back to a question of liability; if the company had knowledge of faulty equipment or a potentially dangerous situation but didn’t warn their employees or do enough to fix the problem, that is when that company could have major violations handed down to them. In some cases you may need to hire a personal injury attorney with experience handling work related claims.
This is one of the most important rights of the construction worker: the right to feel safe. It is the main reason the OSH Act was instituted, and the subsequent creation of OSHA ensures that the legislation is held up to consistently high standards.

*Featured Image By Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York (FultonSt_4039  Uploaded by tm) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

B. Clausen

A graduate of the University of Kansas, Brian Clausen is the U.S. news reporter for Dopplr. Before joining the team, he created digital content for large companies.

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