Laborers need effective protection
Stand around in the Central Texas sun for even a few minutes, and you’ll work up a sweat. Moving around in the summer heat is brutal.
The heat is a potential killer that mercilessly targets those whose jobs involve strenuous physical labor. Over the past two weeks, Austin City Council members have been asked to pass an ordinance mandating water and rest breaks for construction crews. The council responded to the plea by asking the city’s legal department to draft an ordinance.
While no one can credibly argue with council intent, moving unilaterally toward adding another enforcement responsibility onto a limited number of city inspectors or some other arm of the city work force can be questioned. Also subject to question is whether the council has explored alternatives to action that might align the city with the Arizona legislature.
In adopting their tough law cracking down on illegal immigration, Arizona officials said the federal government isn’t doing enough to enforce its own immigration laws.
Council Member Bill Spelman, who sponsored the resolution calling on the legal department to draft an ordinance that won’t run afoul of federal law, adopted that argument. Inspectors from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration do not regularly visit construction sites, Spelman said, “but if we could have local laws that mirror the federal laws, we could enforce those.”
Moving the city into augmenting federal construction worker protection laws is new territory, said state and federal officials contacted by the American-Statesman’s Juan Castillo. OSHA requires that water be provided at construction sites but does not require rest breaks. State law doesn’t require breaks. Common sense does.
As a practical matter, said Harry Savio of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, construction crews who are denied drinking water and rest breaks won’t be productive. That same point is made in a report released by the Workers Defense Project in 2009.
Though industry representatives disputed some of the findings, there is at least general agreement that mistreating workers impedes productivity. Even so, the Workers Protection Project report cites instances of workers being denied rest breaks and water.
Pushing the city into this new territory invites a challenge from industry and perhaps even state and federal governments. A successful challenge would imperil future worker protection efforts. So before rushing into an ordinance, council members should follow up on suggestions made in January when the staff tackled this issue originally.
After meeting with contractors and worker advocates earlier this year, city staffers produced a couple of documents outlining suggestions but offering few firm conclusions. Here’s one:
“The use of safety equipment and rest breaks are already governed by OSHA re- quirement, which precludes additional action by the city,” a municipal report dated Jan. 27 reads.
A mention is made of asking the federal agency for more inspectors. Another avenue that stops short of adopting an ordinance that begs either contractors or the federal government to challenge it would be to urge contractors to draw up worker protection guidelines and follow them.
One solid recommendation that came out of the meetings early this year is for the city to practice what it preaches on public works projects and set an example.
This is no inconsequential concern. Construction is one of the city’s top 10 industries, employing 50,000 Austin residents. Those who build homes and offices that shelter us from the elements deserve respect and protection from abuse.
Good intentions must be matched with effective action, though. Passing an ordinance and hoping for the best won’t provide construction workers the respect and protection they deserve.
Daniel Contreras takes a break from his construction job downtown. The Austin City Council is exploring drafting an ordinance that would require rest and water breaks for construction workers.