The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index

December 7, 2001

New hygiene standard for construction: still plugged up, but not forgotten

New chief brings new plan of business to OSHA

Fountain Walk development spouts variety of new shops

Will low wages in Louisiana lead to union resurgence?

Feds release down payment for new Soo Lock

World Trade Center site: 'very dangerous'



New hygiene standard for construction: still plugged up, but not forgotten

By Marty Mulcahy

WASHINGTON - All too often, construction workers are forced to live with deplorable sanitary conditions when nature calls.

Few workers haven't been exposed to overflowing, smelly portable toilets. And when workers have completed their business in those portable toilets, and the spring-loaded plastic door slams shut, employers may have made soap and water or some antiseptic gel available for hand-cleaning - but more likely, there's none to be found. On construction sites that may just be coming out of the ground, a nearby tree, or the nearest Burger King, are the places to go - and the law allows this lack of bathroom facilities.

Does anybody care that U.S. construction workers are the only workers in the nation who are forced to work in these inhuman, Third-World conditions? The answer is yes - but the process of improving construction hygiene is moving as slow as molasses in January.

"The (OSHA) General Industry standard requires a place for employees to go to the bathroom, and time to do so," said Jane Williams of A-Z Safety Resources Inc., a safety consulting firm. "But the standards in construction are completely inadequate. There are seven-and-a-half million construction workers out there who deserve better conditions."

Williams co-chairs the Sanitation Workgroup of the 15-member Advisory Committee for Construction Safety and Health, which advises OSHA. More than a year ago, the committee made several recommendations to OSHA to improve hygiene on construction sites, including placing hand-washing stations or antiseptic gel within or next to toilets, and lowering the ratio of toilets per worker to one in 10 from one in 40.

Currently, the standard does not require employers to provide time for construction workers to relieve themselves, has no provisions for hand-washing fixtures, and has no requirements for any bathroom facilities at all on some small projects.

This week, OSHA was scheduled to release its regulatory agenda to the public, disclosing its list of rulemaking priorities. Williams said if a new hygiene standard for the construction industry isn't on the list, she intends to campaign to have it put there.

The momentum toward getting a new hygiene standard came to a halt last year with the change in presidential administrations. The new administration, Williams said, has needed time to get people in place at the Department of Labor and assess priorities, a standard administrative process.

There isn't a lot of resistance to implementing a better hygiene standard, Williams said. Some employers have complained about cost. Some bureaucrats have claimed that the alcohol-based gel would be a hand irritant. But the major drag on getting the standard adopted is simply convincing decision-makers to make it a priority.

Policy makers at OSHA, Williams said, "look at where they can make a difference in saving lives, and put a number on it. For example, confined space and steel erection standards may save 30 or 40 lives per year. If you look at this hygiene standard, can you say that it will save lives? No. But there are so many other considerations that come into play, like blood borne pathogens, hepatitis, and infectious diseases that can lead to illness. We must permit our workers to enter the 21st Century!"

Lisa Sturm, an infection control staff specialist with the University of Michigan Hospitals and Health Centers, said she knows first-hand how unsanitary conditions are for construction workers. "My husband is an electrician, and it just grosses me out when he tells me about having to use a can, or the other places he's had to go" she said. "It's hard to believe they don't have requirements for cleaning hands."

Sturm said the most significant hazard comes from diarrheal infections. Hepatitis A or salmonella infections can spread when workers touch any feces-contaminated surface, including the door handle of a portable toilet, and then touch their mouth or their lunch.

"There are a katrillion bacteria in feces, and normally there aren't many effects if they're ingested," Sturm said. "But some can be dangerous. "We have found that the sanitizing gels are extremely effective in killing most viruses and all bacteria. They even have sanitizing wipes out that are even better for visibly soiled hands.

"I hope they get a better standard passed. You've made me think about this. I know I'm going to remind my husband to keep one of those little sanitizer bottles in his toolbox."


New chief brings new plan of business to OSHA

Some of the first public comments from new OSHA Director John Henshaw about the direction of the agency concerned "the value of human capital," and the "value of safety and health."

Of course actions speak louder than words, but Henshaw's words were reassuring to the nation's construction workers, who toil in a highly hazardous environment and have an acute need for government involvement and oversight of job safety rules.

Indeed, Henshaw's use of the terms "value" and "human capital" make workers sound like commodities and part of a business plan - but that's not necessarily a bad thing. If better safety is the ultimate goal, then it's difficult to argue with the underlying philosophy.

"Like many of you, I've been championing the value of safety and health for the past quarter century," Henshaw said in a speech before the National Safety Congress. "I know that safety and health add value. That value may have a direct impact on the bottom line, like fewer injuries and illnesses, lower medical costs and less downtime. Or it may be subtle and difficult to measure. Safety and health add value in hidden ways by increasing performance, productivity and innovation and creativity."

President Bush did not come into office with a particularly friendly position toward working people, who rightfully questioned what direction OSHA would take in a political environment so heavily influenced by the business community. For better or worse, that business influence is evident at OSHA - time will tell if it will be effective.

OSHA's enforcement funding in the Bush Administration will be up slightly from the $151 million that was spent in 2000. Henshaw said he wants OSHA to do more than set standards and impose fines on employers.

"Our job is not to continue to cite," he said, "it is to convince employers to comply. Like co-dependency in the drug culture, we are allowing companies to use fines as a cost of doing business. To me that's repugnant."


Fountain Walk development spouts variety of new shops

Just when you thought retail and entertainment developers had run out of ways to invite you to spend your money, along comes Fountain Walk in Novi.

The 740,000 square-foot development at I-96 and Novi Rd. will offer a unique array of specialty shops, restaurants and entertainment that are new to Michigan, brought together under the banner of a "lifestyle center." The concept is to arrange a destination set up for customers to make quick trips to pick up an item or two without having to park a great distance away, or to stay three or four hours shopping, seeing a movie or rolling around in the skateboard park.

This development isn't quite like the huge, enclosed indoor malls that were in vogue in the 1970s and 1980s. Fountain Walk will be indoor-outdoor, with retailers and restaurants lining interior roads. The development will include a central, signature fountain, as well as benches, landscaping and brick pavers. It is among the first such developments in the nation being built in a cold-weather climate.

"The concept of a lifestyle center with curbside parking has been a trend in the country for the last five years or so," said J. Miles McFee, asset manager for PLC Commercial, the project's owner. "The idea is to bring everything closer to the customer, and re-create the feeling of an old downtown."

Offering up to 58 tenants, the $140 million Fountain Walk combines the attributes of indoor and outdoor malls in one setting. Stores and eateries will line brick-paved roads and sidewalks amid a central fountain and several smaller fountains, landscaping treatments and benches.

The project began last February, and two stores, Galyans (for outdoor enthusiasts) and a Sears-owned Great Indoors store are already open. Most of the rest of the Fountain Walk development is expected to be open in May. Other tenants include Chuck E. Cheese, Casual Corner, Lane Bryant, Jillians, (a bar and restaurant loaded with video games and other interactive activities), a Cinema Hollywood movie theatre, and a 46,000 square-foot skate park.

"The average stay at a lifestyle center is four hours, which is double that of a traditional mall," said Michael Lutton, president of PLC Commercial. "To get to four hours, you need plenty of activities that aren't around a given area, and we feel confident with the active merchants, restaurants and entertainment uses we've brought in."

Clark Construction is acting as general contractor on the project, which has employed up to 500 building trades workers this year.

"The shells of the buildings are up, and we're doing work on some of the interiors," said Allen Blower, project manager for Clark. "We're very happy with the work we're seeing; the craftsmanship and quality have been extremely good."

A LIGHT FIXTURE on one of the streets in the Fountain Walk development is installed by Jason Williams of IBEW Local 58 and Hall Engineering.

LABORER Richard Sanchez (Local 1076) operates a concrete buffer while Steve Beard (Local 334) irrigates with a hose. They were working around one of the fountains.


Will low wages in Louisiana lead to union resurgence?

Edward Steimel said that shortsighted industries in Louisiana have underpaid construction workers so much that they "are creating a climate for a return of unions. Unions are a very normal and proper response when workers are provided unfair wages, benefits and working conditions."

Who is this guy? The head of the state's AFL-CIO?

No, he's the former president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), who was at the forefront of the successful effort to adopt Louisiana's right-to-work law in 1976. Now, he said in a press release, the "pendulum has swung too far" resulting in the state's construction workers being underpaid - and that Louisiana is risking losing construction workers to other states.

"A look at the construction craftsmen's wage rates in Louisiana for the year 2000 compared to wage rates in Michigan, New Jersey and Illinois show a bleak story for Louisiana workers," Steimel said. "It also explains why so many workers are leaving their families here in search of higher pay elsewhere."

He cited U.S. Department of Labor figures showing that average construction wages in Louisiana in 2000 averaged $17.10 per hour, compared with New Jersey at $29.50, Michigan at $27.82 and Illinois at $22.97.

Now director of development for Louisiana State University's College of Engineering, Steimel called the craft pay situation, especially for the state's huge petrochemical plant maintenance industry, "terrible economics for Louisiana." Construction workers performing maintenance work at petrochem plants find themselves making $7-$10 per hour less than employees in the plant - for doing work which essentially requires the same skills. "It results in Louisiana training craftsmen for other states and creates worker unrest here…we are losing many of our best-trained workers to northern and eastern states," he said.

According to the Bureau of National Affairs, union membership in Louisiana stood last year at 135,000, down from 237,000 in 1975, the year before the right-to-work law took effect.

The current LABI President, Don Juneau, told the Construction Labor Report that if Steimel's analysis were correct, there would be a membership increase in unions representing plant maintenance workers. (There hasn't been).

Louisiana State Building Trades Council President Joseph Bertucci told the Construction Labor Report that Steimel's analysis is correct. He said petrochemical plants are offering bonuses instead of wage increases to keep construction maintenance workers. He said "people in the state who control the money" in many industries manage to maintain high profits but keep wages depressed. "I don't know where it will end," Bertucci said.


Feds release down payment for new Soo Lock

By Marty Mulcahy

The federal government has approved the first $3 million to start construction of a new lock through the St. Mary's River in Sault Ste. Marie. The total construction cost is expected to be $225 million.

There are currently four locks at the Soo: The largest and most important is the 1,000-foot long by 105-foot wide Poe Lock, which was completed in 1968 and handles the biggest ore- and bulk-cargo freighters. Also at the Soo are McArthur Lock (completed in 1944, 800 ft. long by 80 ft. wide) and the smaller Davis and Sabin locks, which were built more than 80 years ago.

Plans call for removing the Davis and Sabin locks and replacing them with a larger lock.

"The new lock would be identical in size to the Poe," said Stanley Jacek, Soo-area engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers. Why not make it bigger? "If you make that new lock bigger, then they're going to make the ships bigger, and they wouldn't be able to fit through the Poe Lock, and that would defeat the whole purpose of having a backup," Jacek said. "We want to be able to shut down one lock during the warmer months for service and use the other lock."

Currently, maintenance on the Poe Lock must be done in the winter, when freighter traffic comes to a halt. In fact, Jacek said this winter, the Poe lock is undergoing extensive repairs. And all large freighter traffic through the northern Great Lakes would come to a halt in the summer if the Poe Lock ever broke down for any length because there isn't an alternative lock.

U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Menominee) said work on the estimated five-year project to install the new lock could start as early as next year. Jacek said cofferdam installation to move water out of the way will be first on the to-do list.

"If the Poe Lock is rendered unusable for any reason, it would disable industry in the Great Lakes, halting the shipment of ore, coal, wheat, and other commodities," Stupak told a House subcommittee last year. "The steel industry would be especially hard hit as 70 percent of all raw materials used in the steel industry travel through the Soo Locks."

The locks are necessary because they permit ships to travel around a 21-foot waterfall on the St. Mary's River. Lake Superior is 21 feet higher than the other Great Lakes. Approximately 5,000 boats use the locks every year.

The history of the Soo Locks began in 1797, when the Northwest Fur Company built a lock 38 feet long on the Canadian side of the river for small boats. This lock remained in use until it was destroyed in the War of 1812. Freight and boats were portaged around the rapids until another lock was built.

Congress passed an act in 1852 for the construction of two new locks, which were completed in 1855. In 1881 the locks were transferred to the U.S. government under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has operated the locks, toll free, since then.

U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak said he has worked almost his entire congressional career trying to obtain funds for a new large Soo lock, noting that 90 million tons of freight moves through the locks each year.

Photo by Carmen Paris, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers



World Trade Center site: 'very dangerous'

A health and safety report for rescue and clean-up personnel at the World Trade Center reveals a site that has been astoundingly hazardous to workers.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Services released a report on Oct. 23 that said a total of 7,000 injuries had been reported by recovery workers at the site in the first four weeks after the collapse of the towers

In one 11-day period, 995 illness and injuries were recorded among the 3,000 recovery workers at the site. Injuries varied in severity, but included respiratory problems, severe burns, eye injuries and broken bones.

The report said "there was no evidence or even suggestion that any safety and health program was operative at the site, indeed, the very opposite seems to be the case."

"Absent a comprehensive WTC safety and health plan and given the lack of an organized safety and health presence on the site, we found it to be a very dangerous working environment where many workers lack the hazard-specific training required under current OSHA standards," said Joseph Hughes, program director of the institute's Worker Education and Training Program.

The assessment said the loss of almost the entire emergency response command structure of the New York Fire Department resulted in a shortage of experienced Haz-Mat personnel.

Volunteer building trades workers from Michigan and around the nation were exposed to the hazards after they flocked to the World Trade Center site in the days after the collapse of the towers to help in the rescue effort.

Since October, four contractors using paid union construction workers have been handling the clean-up in New York City, and job safety equipment has been used more extensively.

The institute is also reporting the presence of the "World Trade Center cough" among NYC firefighters and other rescue workers who responded to the collapse of the towers. Respiratory difficulties and a persistent cough have affected more than 4,000 rescue workers.

Dr. David Prezant, chief pulmonologist for the New York Fire Department, said that in a random sampling of 100 sick firefighters, airway hyper-reactivity was found in 25 of them, an indication that they could develop asthma from their exposure.

"This is a major problem that no one is talking about," said Prezant. "We don't know if [these conditions] will be permanent."



Jewelry drawing to aid needy kids
With the holiday season around the corner, building trades workers are invited to take a chance on a jewelry drawing with a prize that will enhance the look of any woman's wrist.

Proceeds from the Dec. 13 drawing will go to the "Friends U Need" program operated by St. Rita's Church in Detroit. The program pays for dinner meals for underprivileged children in their parish.

For the second straight year, the drawing is sponsored by Dan LaLonde, an Operating Engineers Local 324 member, and his wife Cynthia, of Pongracz Jewelers and Point Gemological Laboratory.

The drawing is being held in conjunction with the Greater Detroit Building Trades Council. Last year's drawing of an $8,000 ladies' tennis bracelet raised $10,010 for the St. Rita's program.

This year, the three separate prizes in the drawings include two diamond tennis bracelets and a Movado lady's watch, with a combined value of $7,000.

Tickets ($10) will be available at various union meetings or at Pongracz Jewelers, 91 Kercheval in Grosse Pointe Farms, one-half block south of Cottage Hospital. (313) 884-3325.

Forecast calls for weakness, rebound
New construction activity will continue to be sluggish through December and throughout 2002, but rebound in 2003.

That's the forecast offered by a group of several economists, as reported by the Construction Labor Report. Total construction activity will drop 6.3 percent in 2002, then go up by 4.2 percent in 2003, predicted William Toal, chief economist of the Portland Cement Association.

Ray Owens, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank, predicted a sluggish economy for the "foreseeable future," followed by improvement in 2003.

Beyond 2003, the Labor Department predicts that construction employment is expected to increase by 9 percent through 2008, adding more than a half-million workers to the nation's construction industry payrolls.

The Labor Department said occupations that are expected to have the greatest growth through 2008 include bricklayers, electricians, sheet metal workers, painters, and hvac technicians.


The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index