The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index

January 19, 2001

Construction deaths drop; is more training the key

Michigan is failing at on the job safety

Bush extends fist to workers with Labor Dept. pick

Big chill project revives Ottawa Street Station

Dollar-an-hour won't cut it; union wages continue to rise in Michigan

St. John building to consolidate cancer treatment




Construction deaths drop; is more training the key

By Marty Mulcahy

LANSING - Michigan's construction industry claimed the lives of 23 workers in 2000.

That number of workers killed on the job represents a significant drop from 1999, when 31 were killed; and 1998, when 29 lost their lives.

Michigan construction deaths have been a see-saw affair over the last 15 years, with seemingly little rhyme or reason as to why fatal incidents are low one year and higher the next. But this time, there may be something more to the decline.

Mike McReynolds, an emergency medical technician and nurse at the University of Michigan Medical Center, studied cause and effect of construction fatalities in Michigan from 1991-98. While stressing that more research is needed, he came to the conclusion that for an employer, "the lack of an accident prevention plan or having a poor accident prevention plan does have consequences."

The consequences were laid out in an abstract prepared last October for the National Occupational Research Injury Symposium, called An Eight-Year Review Of Construction Fatalities Without Accident Prevention Programs. McReynolds concluded, "construction sites without accident prevention programs demonstrated high fatality rates."

The law requires all construction employers to have accident prevention programs, but the quality varies widely.

McReynolds, who has studied injury prevention at U-M for a number of years, recommends that the "minimal components" of a good construction injury prevention program include: a responsible qualified person for coordination of all prevention components including education and emergency response, certified instructors in first aid and CPR, instruction of initial treatment for trauma, and the importance of transferring an injured employee to an appropriate hospital.

"The design of such programs," he said, "should include an upper level management commitment, physicians and nurses from trauma centers, and employee representation in the program design. General first aid education must be taught as well as specific injury prevention for the target population. All prevention programs need an increased focus on trauma prevention awareness and initial treatment."

Since Michigan construction worker deaths spiked up to 35 in 1997, MIOSHA has been more active in trying to reduce the fatality rate. MIOSHA's strategies include maintaining "a strong enforcement presence for employers who do not meet their safety and health responsibilities," including targeting inspections, coordinating consultation, education and training, and using arrangements like "settlement agreements" in industries and occupations that pose the greatest risk to workers.

Some in the industry blame higher injury and death rates on state legislators, who have cut MIOSHA funding over the years and made it more difficult to sue employers. Others say MIOSHA has become too friendly with employers, and do not hand down heavy fines when employers break the law.

Last year, we talked about construction fatalities with Suzy Carter, executive director of the Michigan Construction Trades Safety Institute. At the time, she said she expected the construction industry's injury/death rate to decline for purely economic reasons: contractors, trades and owners now realize that good job site safety brings improved productivity, better on-time performance, and lower workers' compensation costs.

McReynolds agreed, but added that the personal economics of workers should be taken into account, too. "We need to remind workers about the social consequences of safety, and look closely at specific on-the-job behaviors to see where we can make improvements. What I mean by 'social consequences' is that if a worker gets injured or dies on the job, he'll be the subject of conversation for a week, and that'll be it. Then he'll be more or less forgotten. But his family won't forget him. And who's going to pay the bills?"


Michigan is failing at on the job safety

By Brian J. Benner

Even though the economy is strong and employers have the resources to make their workplaces safer, more Michigan workers are dying on the job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of workers killed in Michigan rose to 182 in 1999.

There is also a disturbing nationwide increase in the number of deaths caused by machinery. According to OSHA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 1996 to 1997, deaths caused by workers being caught in machinery increased 29 percent. From 1992 to 1996, serious nonfatal injuries resulting from workers being caught in machinery totaled 34,000 and was the leading cause of amputations among private industry wage and salary workers.

Why are more working people being killed and maimed in this time of record economic prosperity? The answer to this question is twofold: lack of state enforcement, and the law, which prevents employees from suing employers who negligently maintain unsafe working conditions.

The Michigan Department of Consumer and Industry Services investigates workplace injuries. One of its divisions is the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or MIOSHA. This year an employee was fined only $2,000 by MIOSHA after an employee was killed due to an unsafe working condition.

Another company was fined even less when one of its employees lost his entire arm in an unguarded conveyor. In 1997, Michigan ranked 48th out of 50 states when it came to imposing serious citations on employers. The same year, Michigan ranked 12th highest in the number of workers killed. It is unacceptable that Michigan had more worker deaths than 38 other states and worse yet that only two states wrote fewer citations than Michigan.

Many people erroneously believe the threat of a lawsuit prompts employers to make employee safety a priority. In Michigan, it is virtually impossible to have a viable case against your employer if you are killed or injured at work.

In the mid-1990s, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Manufacturer's Association and various employers associations lobbied the Michigan Legislature to revise the law making workers' compensation the only remedy for employees injured at work unless the employer commits an "intentional act". This means that even a worker who is blinded or has his arms or legs amputated cannot sue his employer unless it can be proven that the employer tried to injure him on purpose.

Worker deaths and injuries in Michigan will most likely continue to rise because employers with unsafe equipment and work sites currently have little incentive to make their workplaces safer. MIOSHA, the legislature and our courts have failed to ensure that employers provide basic job safety to their employees. It is high time MIOSHA and our legislature increased enforcement, fines and civil remedies to force employers to follow fundamental safety practices to decrease the number of worker deaths and injuries.

-Brian J. Benner is a founding partner of the Farmington Hills-based international law firm of Benner and Bilicki.


Bush extends fist to workers with Labor Dept. pick

Earlier this month, President-Elect George W. Bush dropped a bomb on organized labor in the form of Linda Chavez, his candidate for Labor Department secretary, who regulates how the nation's government interacts with the nation's workers.

Bush picked a doozy.

"She's an insult to American working men and women," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Noted columnist Marianne Means: "With the Chavez nomination, Bush is signaling that he intends to further escalate his party's war on workers to keep his corporate supporters cheering."

Chavez, a conservative newspaper columnist, ultimately pulled her name from consideration to lead the Labor Department, over a flap regarding whether she housed and paid an illegal alien from Guatemala who performed domestic chores for her. At press time, Bush had nominated former United Way of America Director Elaine Chao as his second pick, but organized labor hadn't developed a stance on her appointment.

While cabinet appointees come and go, and the kind of controversies that involve Chavez are becoming more prevalent, the real story is that Bush and his "compassionate conservative" agenda had an opportunity to extend an open hand to organized labor - but instead, it was more of a fist. Bush's choice for the post should give all workers cause for concern, especially those who voted for him.

"I want to work with employers to ensure that the Department of Labor assists with the private sector," Chavez said when she initially accepted Bush's nomination, completely excluding the customary conciliatory nod to labor-management relations.

She has denounced the minimum wage and other regulations that she feels are burdensome to the business community. She is not a supporter of prevailing wage, and undoubtedly would have worked to tear down union-only project labor agreements that the Clinton Administration has supported. Chavez is against affirmative action, and dismissed Al Gore's proposals for prescription drug benefits for the elderly as "a new welfare state for the middle class."

"Chavez, like her new boss, views the big unions as an intolerable economic menace and defers to big business instead," columnist Means wrote. "This is a symbolic nomination meant to send a message that business comes first. But it is also likely to have a substantive impact that could harm the rights and well-being of millions of ordinary workers."


Big chill project revives Ottawa Street Station

By Marty Mulcahy

LANSING - The fortunes of the Lansing Board of Water and Light's Ottawa Street Station have turned from hot to cold. And that's a good thing for the preservation of a handsome, landmark building.

The building trades, in conjunction with the BWL and construction manager Clark Construction Co. are in the process of converting the former 16-story power plant that provided steam and electricity to the city, into a facility that houses a chilled water system that will cool downtown buildings.

The building, whose footprint spreads over 210,000 square-feet, was shut down as a power producer in 1992 and left vacant. Steam and electrical production were transferred to the nearby Eckert Station.

"It's a wonderful piece of architecture, located in the center of the capital of Michigan, and it has been a pet project of mine to get a developer in there for the last 10 years," said Board of Water and Light Director and General Manager Joseph Pandy, Jr.

Various proposals over the last decade to redevelop the Ottawa Street Station into office or commercial space or as an entertainment venue never worked out. Within the utility, the concept of installing a chilled water system and the related piping to cool downtown buildings caught on, and the centralized location of the old Ottawa Street Station made it an ideal place to install the water chillers.

The looped chilled water system, which has a 20,000-ton capacity, is expected to be up and running in time for the summer 2001 cooling season. The project will cost about $34 million. Chillers at the Ottawa Street Station will cool the water to 42 degrees, then pumps will move the water through buried pipes to buildings in the business district. Cooling coils inside the buildings will use the water for air conditioning, then the water will be re-circulated back to the chillers at about 57 degrees.

Buildings owned by the State of Michigan, including the State Capitol Building, are among those that will air condition their buildings with the system, giving the Board of Water and Light a built-in customer base.

Jack Hill, director of central utilities and chilled water for the Board of Water and Light, said such systems are on the increase among utility providers. He said the advantages to the customer include not having to purchase and maintain their building's own individual chillers, new buildings can be built without having to allow for the extra weight and cost of mechanical cooling systems, "and it should result in a lower cost for the customer," he said.

Hill said major difficulties in this project have not been at the Ottawa Street Station itself, but has involved the tearing up of 11 blocks of city streets in order to install some 14,000 feet of pipe.

"The existing buried utilities were a hodge-podge, and we didn't always have accurate drawings," Hill said. "So we didn't always know what we were getting in to, and it's difficult to change the direction of the pipe."

Plans are also being finalized for the building to act as an "Internet hotel" or "convergence center" for the city, with the building as a termination point for runs throughout Lansing for video, broad-band, and fiber optic cables. The building could act as a nerve center for providers of communication services.

The high-technology wiring and chiller plans are a far cry from the original use of the building. It took about three years to build the Ottawa Street Station, originally a 25,000 kilowatt coal-burning plant which was dedicated in 1939. The building won accolades for its design, which concealed the coal-burning and electrical generation processes on the inside with the façade of a stately office building on the outside.

At the time, Power Plant Engineering magazine stated in its review that "the Ottawa Street station represents a milepost by which technical progress in the industry may well be measured."

Times, technology and the need for more power changed over the years. The interior of the plant was upgraded and eventually included five turbines. A real smokestack was also added on after the original construction - because designers swung and missed on the concept that the building could get by with a smokestack only 13 inches taller than the building's roof. Back drafts of exhaust gases into the building necessitated the construction of single smokestack.

Eventually, however, more modern power plants built by the BWL produced power and steam more effectively.

"We're glad that the building is being re-used," Pandy said.

DEDICATED IN 1939, the Lansing Board of Water and Light's Ottawa Street Station won kudos at the time for making a downtown power plant look...nice. The color and materials of the building's exterior brickwork have meaning, according to an original brochure put out by the BWL. "Symbolizing the combustion of coal," it said, "the polished black of its granite base gives way to a purple gray in the lower masonry. Then, as the eye travels upward, the grays dissolve into reds, deep at first, then brilliant and lighter until they merge into orange. Higher still, the hues change to brighter yellows. And at the very top the color blends into yellow gray."

A FLANGE for a 14-inch chilled water line is installed by Mike Cozzins of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters 333, working on the Ottawa Street Station's old turbine floor.

HERE is a photo of the power plant under construction in 1938.



Dollar-an-hour won't cut it; union wages continue to rise in Michigan

It wasn't long ago when a construction worker in a licensed trade considered "a buck and a truck" a pretty good pay raise for services rendered.

Actually, for virtually all the trades during the 1990s, the annual $1 per hour raise was fairly widespread, although the numbers began to creep up in the latter half of the decade. Some trades got a little more, some a little less. Now, although we have no numbers on how many contractors let their workers use company trucks, we do know the pay raise numbers have improved dramatically.

According to the Construction Labor Research Council, the first year of collectively bargained contracts covering Michigan's unionized construction workers averaged an increase of 4.3 percent, or $1.39 per hour in 2000 - 6 cents per hour more than any other state that had "a sufficient number of settlements to show a meaningful average." On top of that, Michigan's unionized Hardhats also received second-year average wage increases of $1.45 per hour, or 4.2 percent, again tops in the nation.

The numbers applied to 32,066 unionized Michigan construction workers, whose collective bargaining contracts, on average, beat out the national averages by two-tenths of a percent for both 2000 and 2001.

The pay figures in Michigan and nationwide, "represent a slow, but long-term, upward trend in average annual settlement amounts that has been occurring since 1994," the CLRC said.

It's about time. Ninety percent of the industry's contractors said in a survey that "shortage of trained field help" was at the top of their "concerns" list in 2000. The problem is that field help haven't stayed around to be trained - much less make a career out of construction - with the stagnant wages that have prevailed and the industry's reputation as a lousy way to make a living.

Other notes on the industry as we turn the corner on a new year:

  • Industry wages have increased, but so has inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index. The CPI has accelerated to about 3.5 percent per year.
  • The nation's construction unemployment rate was "historically low" during 2000, said the CLRC, between 6-7 percent. At the same time, construction employment was at record levels. Another 200,000 jobs were added in 2000, bringing the nation's total construction workforce close to 6.75 million.
  • The open shop is paying more for its labor, too, but in a manner outside of a collective bargaining agreement. Nonunion contractors use incentives like "per diem pay," travel allowances and premiums for attendance, completion and production to boost pay. Overall, nonunion workers received an average increase of $38.71 per day in such payments, Cockshaw's Newsletter reported last year.
  • Wages of nonunion workers still lag behind those union workers. On average, according to PAS Inc., nonunion electricians are the highest paid craft, at $17.76 per hour in wages. On average, general laborers are on the low end, at $11.31 per hour in wages.


St. John building to consolidate cancer treatment

More convenient care for cancer patients is on the way to the St. John Health System, with the construction of the 69,000-square-foot Van Elslander Cancer Center.

Located on the eastern edge of Detroit on the St. John Hospital campus, the $19 million building is scheduled to open Oct. 1. The St. John Health System has seen its demand for cancer treatment more than double over the past four years, necessitating the new building. More than 5,400 new cancer cases will be seen throughout the health system, making it the third-largest provider of cancer care in the Detroit area.

Barton Malow, its subcontractors and about 50 building trades workers are currently on the job, putting up a three-story building that will provide enhanced radiation therapy, adult infusion service, oncology triage, a meditation chapel, pediatric oncology, and comprehensive breast cancer treatment, among other services.

"This building is basically a step up from an office building," said Barton Malow Senior Project Supt. Larry Dziedzic. "We're not building to hospital code, but there are fixtures here that you don't see in most buildings." Among them is a lead-lined "linear accelerator room" for radiation treatment.

The Van Elslander Cancer Center will include a feature called a "life enhancement center," which will have special rooms designated for massage therapy, reflexology, acupuncture, a mineral bath and a large open room for tai chi and yoga. It's part of what the St. John calls "respect for the spiritual side of healing."

"Instead of three different buildings, this will put all of our cancer services under one roof," said Donna Handley, special projects coordinator for the cancer center. "This is a huge move for us, and we think it will be wonderful for our patients and staff."

ONE OF 32 conductors feeding the 3,000-amp main panel at the new St. John cancer center is installed by the journeyman/apprentice team of Tony Goddeeris and son Mike of IBEW Local 58 and Shaw Electric.



Local 636 donates to Wellness House
Finances at the Wellness House got a little better last month, thanks to the generosity of members of Pipe Fitters, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Local 636.

A hat was passed at the local's recent awards night banquet, and members donated $650 to the charity, which will be used toward building maintenance.

The Wellness House has been in existence for 15 years, and was Michigan's first provider of housing for AIDS patients. They work out of two 80-year-old houses in Detroit, "and they're both very high-maintenance," said Wellness House Executive Director Robert Fetzer. "We're grateful for the gift."

The Wellness House provides housing and nutritional services for people with HIV, and they provide a home to 12 patients and serve meals to 400 more at any given time.

"We're kind of proud that we could just pass the hat and get this level of response," said Local 636 Business Manager Jim Lapham. "We felt it was for a good cause, and hopefully it will help them out a little."

Material costs all over the map
While people costs in the construction industry have increased (see story at right), the trend in the cost of building materials and fuel has been more of a zig-zag affair.

According to the Engineering News Record, the cost of some building materials has been up; some have gone down, others have remained about the same. The rising price of oil and gas has been one of the biggest factors affecting costs for contractors.

"Low energy cost was one of the primary engines driving the current record-breaking economic expansion," the ENR said, "but that started to give way in the second half of last year."

Rising fuel prices has led to double-digit price hikes for paving asphalt and PVC pipe, and hit equipment operators hard.

"We are not very optimistic about energy prices in the near-term, especially with OPEC falling short of its promised production increases," said Amy Carneal, an analyst with Data Resources Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based price forecasting firm. They're forecasting a 1 percent jump in light fuel prices and a 5 percent increase in diesel fuel in 2001.

ENR's average price for paving asphalt ended the year up 22% above December 1999's level, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics' October producer price index for bituminous concrete was up 13% for the year.

PVC water pipe ended 2000 with annual increases between 9 and 12%, down from a 30% rate recorded earlier in the year.

In December, annual prices had fallen 14% for half-inch gypsum wallboard, 9% for 2x4 lumber and 6% for 5/8-in. plywood. Last year, these same products were flying high with peak annual inflation rates of 36% for wallboard, 22% for plywood and 17% for lumber. Steel and cement prices have been less volatile, and costs haven't moved too much.

The ENR said excess material capacity in those areas has led to the lower or stable prices, even while demand has been high.

There are many indexes that track overall construction industry costs. The ENR's Building Cost Index is forecasted to increase 2.6% by December 2001, or about 1.2% more than in December 2000.


The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index