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June 8, 2001

Summer's here, and time is right for 'Give 'em a Brake' campaign

City grew up around old S-Curve; new version ready for the future

Trades' issues grow cold on the back burner

Study offers disquieting news about hearing mentality in trades

'Protection of the construction worker is clearly a matter of politics'

Rebate checks (may be) coming




Summer's here, and time is right for 'Give 'em a Brake' campaign

By Marty Mulcahy

Doubling traffic fines, increasing highway signage and heightened promotional campaigns have been employed in recent years as ways to improve safety for road workers.

All the efforts are aimed at drawing the attention and reducing the speed of two dangerous types of people behind the wheel: the distracted driver and the speeders.

To encourage safer highways over the last few years, a consortium of organizations, including the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, have participated in the Give 'em a Brake campaign, which kicked off May 10 in Lansing. The group announced that more than $200,000 will be spent on statewide billboards, radio and television spots, and more funding will be made available for law enforcement.

"Construction zones aren't just orange barrels and flashing lights," said Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Tom Boensch. "They contain real workers, and they deserve a safe workplace. Motorists can help keep workers and themselves safe by slowing down in construction zones."

With highway construction season well under way, the Michigan Department of Transportation and Michigan State Police are working together to reduce work zone crashes.

  • Up to $500,000 in additional funding for State Police enforcement will be made available.
  • Traffic fines have been doubled in work zones.
  • Posted speed limits are gradually reduced as vehicles approach construction areas. MDOT is testing the use of rumble strips as a first warning sign.
  • MDOT will continue a pilot project started last year with two construction zones that will use "Do Not Pass" signs and enforcement to curb aggressive driving. The test is designed to reduce aggressive lane changes by requiring drivers to switch lanes and merge before the discontinued lane ends.
  • MDOT also will continue a pilot project started last year with two construction zones near Muskegon and Grand Rapids that will use "Do Not Pass" signs and enforcement to curb aggressive driving. The test is designed to reduce aggressive lane changes by requiring drivers to switch lanes and merge before the discontinued lane ends.
  • And in an effort to protect highway construction workers in Michigan, State Sen. Bill Bullard (R-Highland) has introduced a bill to create stiffer penalties for any motorist who injures or kills a highway construction worker in Michigan. Under SB 373, penalties for injuring a construction worker would be up to a $1,000 fine and up to two years in prison, while the penalty for killing a highway worker would be up to a $7,500 fine and up to 15 years in prison.

If the motorist is under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance, the punishment could be up to 20 years in prison. The bill is currently pending in the state Senate.

"Drivers in Michigan know that summer road construction is a necessary fact of life here and we all need to slow down and live with it," said Dave Zydna, president of the Michigan Road Builders Association. "Saving a few minutes of time speeding through a work zone is not worth risking someone's life."

Actually, the life motorists save could be their own. The number of U.S. work zone traffic fatalities has increased in recent years from 789 in 1995 to 868 in 1999, the most recent year figures are available. In addition, 40,000 people are injured every year in traffic work zones.

Safety research has shown that the public incorrectly believes that most people killed in work zones are the workers. "The vast majority of people killed in work zone accidents are not the highway contractors and the state people on the job, it's the motorists who are passing through the work zone," said Dean Carlson, president of the Association of State Highway Transportation Officers.

From 1991-1996, there was an annual average of 5,510 crashes and 2,029 injuries in work zones in Michigan. From 1997-1999, there was an annual average of 6,992 crashes and 2,371 injuries, representing a 27-percent increase in crashes and a 17-percent increase in injuries. MDOT says the stepped up construction activity has played a big part.

"By slowing down and staying alert in work zones, you can save more than just the cost of a ticket; you can save a life," said Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm. "Michigan's highway construction workers keep our state moving - the least we can do is keep them safe."

WITH 18-WHEELERS and other vehices screaming by just a few feet away, building trades workers deserve all the protection they can get. In 2001 and in the past few years, the Michigan Department of Transportation has been trying a few new tactics to improve work zone safety.


City grew up around old S-Curve; new version ready for the future

By Marty Mulcahy

GRAND RAPIDS - The state Department of Transportation called the recently completed reconstruction of the city's notorious U.S. 131 S-Curve "by far the largest and most complex civil engineering project ever launched in West Michigan."

In 1963, constructing the original 1.2-mile, six-bridge roadway through the heart of this city was no small feat, either.

Even during a period when state and federal governments enjoyed far more flexibility in where they wanted to place public roads, building the original S-Curve didn't happen without controversy and the loss of viable buildings.

"Many people were as perplexed then as they are now as to the shape the freeway took," said MDOT Grand Region Office spokeswoman Julie Martin. "Many anecdotes exist in the community about how the big landowners, political power bases and leading businessmen in the community dictated which buildings could and could not be removed to build the freeway.

"When you factor that in with other obstacles, such as railroads, the river, Indian burial grounds, etc., you come up with an 'S.'"

The S-curve is a series of six bridges that carry approximately 120,000 vehicles per day over the Grand River and the city. It was never a perfect solution to the city's traffic needs: there were basically no shoulders on the six-lane road, and the entrance and exit ramps needed to be redesigned.

"Accidents weren't that disproportionate on the S-Curve compared to other sections of the freeway," said MDOT Project Engineer Suzette Peplinski, "but because there were only one-foot shoulders on the old roadway, one stalled vehicle would take a lane completely out of commission."

The S-Curve's surface was reconstructed in the 1970s, and ongoing maintenance activities have occurred as needed, but over the last few years, significant deterioration had occurred at several locations on the structures in the curve.

MDOT was evaluating renovations of the S-Curve when the subject moved to the front-burner in January 1998. It was discovered that dissolving gypsum deposits under the Grand River created a void in the bedrock, causing the support pier for the road section to drop eight inches. A temporary repair was made, but it was clear that more extensive rehabilitation was needed.

Enter contractor Kiewit Western and the building trades, who widened, strengthened, slightly straightened and completely modernized the stretch of road during a 40-week construction period that began January 9, 2000. The S-Curve was shut down, and a crew of about 280 craftspeople and 70 supervisors worked 540,000 hours to get the job done. Total cost to fix the S-Curve: $145 million.

"The people who built the S-Curve deserve a lot of credit because of the amazing sense of urgency," said Steve Nerby, project manager for Kiewit. "Working within a difficult schedule under tough conditions, everyone was committed to completing this project."

Kiewit and the building trades removed 175,000 tons of concrete from the old S-Curve, and about 7,000 tons of structural steel. They recycled about 6,000 tons of asphalt.

The new bridge foundations over the Grand River were drilled to a depth of 90 feet. Four lanes were created, along with 12-foot shoulders. A system to squirt de-icing fluid over the road was installed. Entrance and exit ramps were redesigned. All under an extremely fast schedule that sought to limit the inconvenience for area motorists, who coped surprisingly well with the closure of the most heavily traveled thoroughfare in the Grand Rapids area.

With the closure of the S-Curve, there was some talk of straightening the road, but it was only talk. The city has grown up around the bends in the road. In the end, only one building was razed during the renovation process.

"The damage that would have been inflicted on the neighborhoods, schools and churches of Grand Rapids would never have been supported, or probably even allowed by law," Martin said. "And the improvements of the S-Curve solved an estimated 80 percent of the issues of the old S-Curve."

WIDER, SAFER, STRONGER and somewhat straighter than the stretch of U.S. 131 it replaced, here is the new and improved S-Curve through Grand Rapids.

IN THE EARLY 1960s, the S-Curve took on an "S" shape so the thoroughfare could go around existing buildings, and deciding which ones to raze did not come without controversy.


Trades' issues grow cold on the back burner

By Marty Mulcahy

The U.S. construction industry was supposed to get its own standard for dealing with noise on job sites in 1983 - and today, we're still waiting.

The extensive ergonomics standard for general industry that was released last year - and killed early on during the Bush Administration - would have covered 27 million workers at 1.9 million workers places. But the construction industry would not have been covered.

An OSHA spokesman said at the time that one of the reasons construction was excluded is because OSHA wanted to limit the initial scope of the new rule, so the agency wouldn't be overwhelmed. Second, he said much of the research they've done on ergonomics doesn't apply to construction.

In addition, this publication has complained for years about the lack of a simple, humane rule that would require toilet and hand-washing facilities on all construction job sites - and today, we're still waiting.

"There's no question, the construction industry has lagged behind general industry when it comes to safety standards, and you can see it in the higher injury and fatality rates," said Suzy Carter, executive director of the Michigan Construction Trades Safety Institute. "Construction does have some catching up to do when it comes to improving standards, but there are existing standards that aren't being enforced. I don't think you can put the entire blame on the government, I think the whole industry can make a better effort at providing a safer workplace."

The two related articles below explain how the federal government can help construction workers - and how construction workers can help themselves.



Study offers disquieting news about hearing mentality in trades

Hearing loss is one of the most common maladies affecting construction workers - and one of the most easily preventable.

New research out by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that a whopping 44 percent of carpenters and 48 percent of plumbers - the two trades that were studied - said that they had a perceived hearing loss.

But it gets worse. In the best tradition of closing the barn door after the horses have escaped, the workers acknowledged that their environment put them at risk for hearing loss - but they mostly ignored hearing protection and reported that they believed using hearing aids would restore hearing the same way glasses restore vision.

Wrong, said Carol Merry Stephenson, a researcher for NIOSH. She said even the best and most expensive digital hearing aids cannot restore hearing lost in the higher decibel ranges, which is the level that is damaged first by exposure to loud noise.

Stephenson told the Construction Labor Report that after years of interviews with carpenters, she discovered that they had more of a fear of tinnitus - a persistent ringing in the ear - rather than of mild hearing loss.

"It's so rare to go on a construction site where people are actually wearing hearing protection," she said. When they do find a worker using hearing protection it is often because the individual is concerned about being able to participate in outside activity such as working as a musician.

NIOSH is conducting five new projects this year to learn more about hearing loss. Stephenson's work began in 1993, when they set out to do a health hazard evaluation of carpenters. "We found this rampant hearing loss," she said. Their studies found that 25-year-old carpenters had the hearing of non-noise-exposed 50-year-olds.

With all the trades working so closely together, there's every reason to believe that the hearing of other crafts workers are similarly affected.

"It's not surprising that several recent studies have shown that a large number of construction workers experience work-related hearing loss," said Charles Jeffress, assistant secretary of Labor, OSHA, earlier this year. "In fact, we estimate that 750,000 construction workers experience work-related hearing loss."

Jeffress said OSHA adopted a hearing conservation standard for general industry in 1983, and at the time pledged to adopt a similar requirements for construction. It never happened.

"We are going to do something about it," he said. "Our goal is to issue advance notice of proposed rulemaking this summer."

So in the meantime, how do workers save their hearing ability? If you expect the answer to be "wear your hearing protection," such as ear plugs and ear muffs, you would only be partially correct. Hearing loss is "100 percent preventable," NIOSH says, but hearing protection is perceived by some workers as cumbersome and dangerous, if it blocks out the noise of vehicles backing up or other potential hazards. Plus, workers who have already experienced hearing loss may have trouble understanding speech while using hearing protection.

"I really look at hearing protection as a stopgap measure until we engineer out the noise," Stephenson said. Added Jeffress: "Engineering controls are really the best way to go."

NIOSH says examples of effective engineering controls include installing mufflers on power equipment or building an acoustic barrier. The Laborers Health and Safety Fund is also working on a "buy quiet" initiative to bring attention to lowering the decibel level of tools.

But those kinds of efforts cost money, and until that happens on a widespread basis, keep the ear plugs in and the ear muffs on, as much as you can. Once you lose hearing, you'll never get it back.



'Protection of the construction worker is clearly a matter of politics'

By Scott Fulmer
Construction Occupational Health Program
University of Massachusetts-Lowell

The construction industry was exempt from the recent and short-lived OSHA ergonomic standard.

Why? Is it the work environment at a construction site already in better ergonomic order than general industry? If this were the case, we would expect to see construction workers healthier than the general working population.

The opposite is true. By our best accounts, the population of construction workers has the highest rates of people suffering musculoskeletal injuries. What would motivate OSHA to exempt the industry from a standard which would address a clearly demonstrated need?

OSHA's standard, based closely on recommendations from NIOSH, are built on an understanding of the kind of risk a worker is exposed to, and a reasonably clear relationship between such exposure and the development of an injury or illness. For example, exposure to too much noise can result in hearing loss.

The underlying issue distinguishing construction from general industry is the dynamic, non-routine environment of a construction site. In general industry, ergonomic improvement can be addressed in large part by making changes to the work environment itself. In construction, on the other hand, the work environment is not a fixed work station, but changing all the while the job is happening.

In essence, though there are tools that measure simple chemical or physical exposures (like noise) in any work environment, a tool to measure the amount of musculoskeletal stressors in non-routine environments has not yet been widely adopted.

The COHP has developed PATH to respond to this challenge. Posture, Tools, Activities, Handing is a system for quantifying the posture, repetition and forces used in any job, regardless of the environmental configurations. Once a researcher can define the basic work elements of a task, such as hammering a concrete form, then he or she can demonstrate the corresponding postures that are necessary. The forces involved can be quantified through a large sample of workers engaged in a task.

Logically, then, a defined ergonomic risk, as measured by PATH, can be tested epidemiologically, and, just as noise levels correspond to observable loss of hearing, resulting musculoskeletal disorders can be determined.

Similarly, PATH can demonstrate how much a risk factor is reduced by any particular intervention. Work in a construction environment, then, is no different than work in general industry when seen through the eyes of a tool like PATH.

Now that the science is there, the protection of the construction worker is clearly a matter of politics. Who should decide how much is too much?

Produced by the Construction Occupational Health Program, U-Mass.- Lowell under grant CCU317202 from NIOSH through the Center to Protect Workers' Rights. The research is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of NIOSH.


Rebate checks (may be) coming

Looking forward to your tax rebate check? It may not deliver all that's promised.

Last month, Congress passed President Bush's tax cut, with the word that by this summer, the check will be in the mail to help stimulate the economy.

Single tax filers, it was said, would get checks for $300, while married couples would get $600. Then came word from the nonpartisan Citizens for Tax Justice, a nonpartisan advocacy group, who said 26 percent of all tax filers won't get any rebate check because they owed no income tax last year, and 13 percent more will only get partial rebates.

"The people who care most about $300 are the ones who aren't going to get it," said Robert McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax Justice. "The people who are going to get the whole thing are the ones who don't care much."

Almost half the families who won't get a rebate are low-income households that receive an earned-income tax credit.

In Michigan, tax rebate checks won't be mailed to 1.17 million residents who filed taxes, or 26 percent, ranking our state fifth in the number of taxpayers who won't get checks.

Among married couples earning between $27,000 and $44,000 - the middle 20 percent of American families - the average rebate check will be $356. Among married couples earning between $15,000 and $27,000, the average rebate will be only $84.

Households receiving a rebate check will be notified by an IRS letter in July.



Jeffords' switch restores balance
WASHINGTON - The state of affairs in our nation's capital just go a little more balanced for organized labor and all working people.

U.S. Sen. James Jeffords' decision to disavow his affiliation with the Republican Party and become an Independent broke a 50-50 tie in the Senate, throwing control of that body into the hands of the Democrats.

"I have changed my party label, but not my beliefs," said Jeffords, one of
the Senate's most liberal Republicans. His voting record is so liberal
that last year, when Jeffords won a third six-year term, prominent Democrats
and pro-worker Rep. Bernie Sanders (Ind.-Vt.), a Socialist, refused to
challenge him.

For workers, the impact of Jeffords' switch will appear most sharply in
Senate committees, where pro-worker Democrats take over and can stop anti-labor legislation before it hits the Senate floor. Jeffords chaired the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and worked closely there with ranking Democrat Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who succeeds him. Michigan Sen. Carl Levin takes over the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee.

President Bush can still try to jam his agenda through Congress. As an example,
the Senate passed his tax bill the day before Jeffords' announcement by
62-38, with 12 Democrats joining all 50 Republicans - including Jeffords - in
voting for it. Bush pointed to such "bipartisan" votes as evidence he can
still win his way.

Two other changes may be key to workers. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
replaces Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) at the Judiciary Committee, giving Leahy
the power to delay if not kill right-wing anti-worker Bush judicial
nominees. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) replaces Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa)
at Finance, which handles trade, Social Security, Medicare and taxes.
Business lobbyists say Baucus favors labor rights, and steel quotas.

Construction deaths far outpace others
Between 1980 and 1997, the rate of all U.S. workplace fatalities dropped by 45 percent, the Centers for Disease Control reported in late April, but the construction industry unfortunately is bucking that positive trend.

The Center for Disease Control reported that the rate of all U.S. workplace deaths in 1980 was 7.4 per 100,000, while in 1997 that number dropped to 4.1 deaths per 100,000.

During the entire time period study, the construction industry experienced the largest number of deaths - 19,179, or 19 percent. The numbers add up to an annual average of 15 construction worker deaths per 100,000 workers over those 17 years, the highest of any worker classification. Falls were the biggest killer.

Union trades push for energy inclusion
There's one thing trade unions and the Bush Administration can agree on - a national energy policy that involves building more oil production facilities, refineries and power plants.

Vice President Dick Cheney met with union leaders last month in an attempt to win support for the administration's energy policy, which centers around finding more oil, expanding the construction of nuclear plants, and building more fossil-fueled power plants and related facilities.

"They talked about jobs, jobs, jobs," said a pleased Operating Engineers General President Frank Hanley. Cheney told the labor leaders that he wants them to push legislators to adopt the plan - but he didn't pledge to make union labor a partner in the construction process. Michael Mathis, director of governmental affairs for the Teamsters, said "there were no guarantees," but there will be future discussions.


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