La­bor­ers need ef­fec­tive pro­tec­tion

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

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.

Jar­rad Hen­der­son AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

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.

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