The Safe Workplace Act
Eight hours after the bill was signed into law, the White House announced the creation of a “National Disaster Industrial Accident Registry”. The database will act as a tracking system for all accidents on US construction sites, allowing workers to know if their jobs have been hazardous, and allowing their employers to identify hazards and address problems quickly. No other country collects such extensive data on how construction accidents impact workers.
Small steps. This is the first time the US government has ever launched a program designed to prevent industrial accidents. Eighty million work days are lost each year due to workplace accidents. Since most of the incidents occur on employers’ construction sites, this database will be invaluable to the “safety practitioners” and “safety inspectors” who investigate and fix fatal and life-threatening accidents, thousands of which occur in the year. The registry provides benefits to all employers who maintain records on death and injuries, and was enthusiastically endorsed by the construction industry as a way to attract new workers.
Implications For US Construction Sites
While the registry doesn’t have wide applicability in the US, it could have wide implications for US construction sites, although the act is limited to the construction industry. It’s significant that this registry holds safety practices at the center of safety reform efforts, including the building of a database, and that construction is a major source of fatalities. Many construction jobs are done on old and often unsafe worksites. The new registry will alert employers to hazards and address the critical issue of proper worker training and procedures, potentially improving efficiency and safety as well as worker wellbeing. The United Steelworkers have indicated that safety in the construction industry is more important than ever after the October 2010 collapse of the Solomon Creek Bridge, which killed 13 workers. A 1997 study also found that increased worker safety in construction creates significant economic and social benefits, promoting shorter injury and illness times, more effective use of the limited resources employees are already using, and reduced turnover costs for employers.
The challenge will be to ensure that the database becomes a useful tool for employers, and better information is always better. The US Department of Labor has authority over federal employees who undergo mandatory training and government bodies such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Occupational Safety and Health Administration who inspect construction sites. Because the registry is only a registry, its effect will be limited to worker health and safety, without progress on the major economic and job issues these problems raise. Many employers and trade associations are already focusing on safety issues, but it’s necessary to streamline the process by which employers obtain information about all the potential hazards that workers face and how these issues can be addressed. It’s easy to create a registry, but it’s harder to transform it into a sustainable, vital safety program.
I believe the administration has taken a necessary first step. A registry should be a springboard to implement a wide-reaching program for construction safety reform, and should expand beyond the construction industry. In this case, the new registry seems like a good place to start.