TESTIMONY BEFORE THE SENATE COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC WORKS
BY ROBERT A. GEORGINE, PRESIDENT
BUILDING AND CONSTRUCTION TRADES DEPARTMENT, AFL-CIO
ISTEA Reauthorization
May 7, 1997

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before your committee today on safety-related issues as they apply to the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), which when passed will be known as NEXTEA.

The original ISTEA legislation was landmark legislation. For the first time in the nation's history, the Federal government passed legislation not just to and construction of individual highways, bridges or transportation systems, but to think in terms of regional and national infrastructure systems. It was an important difference then, and it remains important today as you struggle with how best to utilize the limited funds available for such a large and wide-spread national infrastructure picture.

Even though we are in an era of government downsizing and constrained Federal spending, the nation's businesses and their workers cannot be competitive in the 21st Century without a well-financed transportation network. In many parts of the nation, but especially along our coastlines which facilitate imports and exports, infrastructure improvement is critical. These areas strengthen our national position as a primary gateway for international trade and commerce. In many localities, but dramatically within border towns that facilitate international shipments by road traffic, significant infrastructure expenditures are a necessity. To that end, Congress is in a position to send a strong signal about our nation's priorities during this authorization process.

We, the Building and Construction Trades Department, the Transportation Trades Department and the affiliated national and international unions from both AFL-CIO departments, support those who seek to redirect the deficit reduction tax to the Highway Trust Fund.

The 4.3 cent gas tax, enacted in 1993 for deficit reduction, should go to support the Highway Trust Fund programs, and ought to be distributed equitably and fairly within our federal surface transportation system. We support allocating a half cent for Amtrak capital needs with the 3.8 cents balance going to support additional investments in highway and transit needs under existing formulas.

The Department of Transportation, the White House and Congressional committees all seek new ways to expand the upgrading of the national infrastructure. The Administration's proposal to bring state governments into this process through creation of the State Infrastructure Banks, or SIBs, as they have become known, is an interesting concept. However, we disagree with it.

We believe the Federal government is stepping away from its responsibility to achieve a cohesive national infrastructure program by creating a structure that will fund only state-oriented programs.

Proponents suggest this will ensure participation and responsibility within the states to make critical decisions about projects built within their borders. SIBs, as presently configured in the draft proposal by DoT, would involve the states in the raising of funds to finance programs not ordinarily financed through the federal process.

While this may have some beneficial effect for states able to attract investors, the possibility remains that a future Administration or Congress may abrogate responsibility to adequately fund a national transportation program that benefits all states and all of our citizens.

Among the proposals being considered for construction through SIBs would be such varied projects as the construction of water systems, water ports, inland waterways, airports, schools and libraries. The SIBs could use funds to provide loan guarantees, lines of credit, and limited direct lending to states and localities for infrastructure projects.

It is also proposed that private parties, such as individual and multiemployer union pension funds, could be investors in SIBs. If present prospects unfold, then participation of these funds would likely be precluded unless strong worker rights language was incorporated into any agreement.

It is too early yet to know if the final bill language will allow pension plan investments. However, the concept is feasible if SIBs are structured in a way that would allow fund administrators to meet required fiduciary obligations. It is also imperative that the members of those union funds are employed to build the projects.

NEXTEA is without doubt the most important construction bill to come before Congress before the end of the century. For this reason, each and every one of the 15 national and international unions affiliated with the Building and Construction Trades Department is a strong and vocal advocate of this legislation.

Those of you serving on this committee have been asked to make difficult, expensive and important decisions about America's future. Congress approved $155 billion in 1991 for ISTEA. This year, the Clinton Administration has proposed spending $175 billion over the five-year life of this bill, nearly $40 billion of which would be obligated for surface transportation in the first year of NEXTEA.

The Building and Construction Trades supports a higher authorization level. Given the importance of our nation's infrastructure to national and international commerce, it might be worthwhile to consider raising the total money in the bill, if not this year, then as soon as possible.

Preserving the key elements of ISTEA in the NEXTEA bill is important. It is good that an intergovernmental partnership, a commitment to safety, enhanced planning and a concern for the environment are included in the bill. Flexibility, intermodalism and infrastructure investments should be retained and expanded.

Unfortunately, the committee must choose its priorities on the basis of the present state of the existing infrastructure. And, there is much from which to choose.

More than a quarter million miles of American roads are considered either poor or mediocre. Of all American highway systems in this nation, only 39 percent of highways are judged to be in good condition.

A total of 186,559 bridges over twenty feet in length are considered deficient. This represents 32 percent of all the bridges in the nation. Highway fatalities have risen every year since 1991, with 41,798 fatalities recorded in 1995, the last year for which information is available. Three of every four of these deaths occurred on two- lane roads. The American Highway Users Alliance computed the figures cited above, and also provided us with the information which follows:

-- It costs the nation an average annual investment of $54.8 billion just to maintain the present state of repair of the national highway system.

-- It would require an average of $74 billion a year of combined federal, state and local expenditures to improve present conditions on the nation's highways.

-- The Department of Transportation, for the first year of NEXTEA, authorizes $39 billion of Federal money for surface transportation. That means the states and local governments are going to have to contribute substantially if the nation is going to make discernible improvements soon.

In today's world, a modern four-lane highway can cost $5 million a mile in areas where construction is relatively easy. Governor Paul E. Patton of Kentucky, in testimony in March before the House Surface Transportation Subcommittee, said he estimated, in his state where roads must be built in rugged mountainous terrain, the cost of that same mile of four-lane highway can cost $30 million. He further testified that in his state, more than half of the rural county roads are unpaved.

The significance of these overwhelmingly bad statistics is not simply to demonstrate the problem, but the need for solutions. I know that is the goal of this committee. We pledge the skill of our members to ensure that badly needed repairs and possible improvement of the nation's infrastructure will be accomplished. And as we pledge the support and dedication of our members to rebuilding America, we applaud the Committee for considering the safety and health issues that are necessarily raised when the subject turns to construction.

The construction industry includes a wide range of diverse, frequently changing activities that occur on temporary worksites under a variety of circumstances. The vast majority of construction contractors are classified as small employers (with less than 100 employees) who have limited resources and few full- time personnel with safety and health expertise. This is complicated by the existence of multiemployer worksites where communication and coordination are difficult at best. Until recently, construction ranked as the leading industry sector in work- related injuries and deaths.

Nonfatal work-related injuries and illnesses are reported every year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1995, these rates fell to the lowest level in nearly a decade. Still, construction remains a dangerous way to make a living. It is, in fact, the second highest, most dangerous sector, with an injury incidence rate of 10.6 cases per 100 equivalent full-time workers. In 1995, this translated to 484,900 work-related injuries and illnesses with 190,600 of those involving lost days of work.

According to the National Safety Council, 350,000 construction workers suffer from disabling injuries every year. In 1995, an additional 1,040 died in work-related accidents (20% of all work-related deaths). This represents 16 deaths a year for every 100,000 construction workers. That means that on any given day, four workers will die because of construction site accidents. In my opinion, most of them are preventable.

The three most common causes of deaths in construction involve falls (representing almost a third of fatalities), followed by "contacts' with objects or equipment, and electrocution. These types of injuries are, however, not the only life- threatening or debilitating dangers in construction. In addition, workers are exposed to hazardous substances and work processes that have been related to illnesses with long latency periods--like asbestosis or cancer.

BLS data, as presented above, does not adequately represent these types of events as they most often occur years after the worker has left the worksite and are never recorded on the BLS survey. BLS conservative estimates, based on sampling, do indicate that at least 500,000 occupational illnesses are recognized or diagnosed each year.

Construction workers face the risk of lead poisoning related to the repair or demolition of old bridges and other structures coated with lead paint. They are at high risk of silicosis because of the quartz found in work materials as they chip, hammer, drill, crush, load, haul and dump rock; use abrasive blasting of concrete or silica sand; demolish concrete or masonry; or dry sweep and use air pressure on concrete, rock or sand dust.

Asbestos, which was phased out in the 1970's and 1980's, still presents a danger to construction workers in demolition or renovation activities with potential long-term health effects that include asbestosis and cancer. The potential injury list is long and includes noise-induced hearing loss, respiratory problems associated with welding; and neurologic and reproductive hazards related to exposure to solvents and other materials. The two leading workers' compensation costs nationwide are associated with ergonomic issues (including back injuries) and skin problems (including irritant and contact dermatitis)--to which construction workers are prone.

Because of the dangers and high injury rates in construction, workers compensation insurance costs are high. John Burton, Editor of the Workers Compensation Monitor, estimates that the cost to workers' compensation for all construction-related accidents and illnesses is in the range of 11.6 billion dollars a year. Although construction workers represent five percent of the work force, they account for 15 percent of all workers' compensation claims. The Colorado Compensation Insurance Loss Prevention Department reports that costs per case in 1995 were 40 percent higher for construction, compared with all other industries. According to the Engineering News Record, construction contractors often pay $30 (and sometimes as high as $80) in workers' compensation premiums for every $100 in payroll.

With such dramatic statistics before us, it is important to note that there are differences between a union and a non-union workforce when it comes to safety and health. In a study by Dedobbeleer, et al., which appeared in the Journal of Occupational Medicine, researchers at the University of Montreal and Johns Hopkins University examined:

.differences between union and non-union construction workers in terms of safety performance and of demographic, employment, and socio-psychological factors related to safety performance.

The data show that union and non-union construction workers differ significantly in terms of certain employment characteristics, perceptions of the workplace and other socio-psychological characteristics. Union construction workers are more experienced, have more stable employment and have been more exposed to safety training than non-union workers...Union workers also report more often that proper equipment is available, that regular safety meetings are held, and that co-workers have a favorable attitude toward safety practices...Furthermore, union workers have a higher level of knowledge of safety practices and perceive having more control over their own safety on the job...

[The]...results of this study have several implications. First, they suggest that non-union construction sites need special attention because they recruit the largest group of workers who have the lowest safety performance...This is more crucial as accessibility to formal training opportunities and safety meetings is less frequent in non- union sites. Second, they imply that unions are playing an important role in occupational safety by contributing to two factors that have been shown to have an important impact on construction workers' safety performance in a previous study: safety training and perception of control over one's safety on the job.

Union construction workers are the best trained and prepared to safeguard against accidents on the job. Training and employee participation have been shown to result in increased worker morale, decreased injury and illness rates, higher productivity, reduced workers' compensation costs and increased profits. These are the goals of the Building and Construction Trades Department.

To achieve our objectives, we have embarked on a standardized training initiative in collaboration with our affiliated unions and their employer counterparts. Our 10-hour worker hazard-awareness training program will be integrated into the apprenticeship systems of every craft within the next three to four years. After training is completed, each worker will receive a card certifying that they were trained according to OSHA standards. We believe that this type of training should be legislated because of the hazards construction workers face.

Using this training as a baseline, our members will continue to build greater safety and health knowledge through the unions' journey-level training system. Already, the majority of our unions have incorporated the hundreds of specific OSHA training requirements that affect their trade into their infrastructures. This includes training for workers engaged in hazardous waste remediation and removal; asbestos- and lead-abatement; confined-space work; rehabilitation and renovation at factories covered by process safety management; scaffold erection, dismantling and use; fall protection; and a myriad of others.

As Federal and state government resources devoted to safety and health diminish, safety and health in the workplace will depend heavily on the ability of the construction labor-management trusts to deliver all of these types of training--and more. Already, across the country, owners and contractors are beginning to require and/or to negotiate a variety of training beyond what OSHA mandates before a construction worker ever sees the worksite; and, they rely heavily on the apprenticeship and journey-person training systems to deliver it. In Texas, owners are requiring the type of 10-hour awareness training referenced above. In Ohio, the "Passport" program calls for 16 hours of specified safety and health training. In Alaska, there is legislation that mandates a 16-hour training program for painters using oil-based paints--because of the potential risk to the painters and the environment.

According to the Vincent study which surveyed construction service users, quality training results in high quality workmanship, a more productive worker, a more competent worker and a safer worker. These translate to economic benefits. Over the long run, this means there will be fewer cost overruns and less need for rework and call backs. Doing construction work right the first time means owners will save money. The unionized segment of the workforce also provides organizational efficiency which is extremely important for projects that are scheduled for long periods of time.

Our members are the best trained, most skilled and safest craft workers in the world. This is due in large part to our extraordinary apprenticeship and journey worker upgrading programs administered by joint labor/management committees.

Each year, our jointly administered programs train 170,000 apprentices to journey status, and provide continuing education retraining for an additional 250,000 journey workers. All of this is done at 1,000 facilities around the nation which are operated through labor-management trust funds spending $300 million annually for training.

Our apprenticeship members receive classroom as well as on-the-job training. Additionally, our trust fund programs place great emphasis on continuing education, including safety training that familiarizes workers with the myriad of hazards that are inherent in the construction industry. And, because of their safety training, our members are more productive.

The Building and Construction Trade unions welcome the opportunity to train new entrants into our crafts. For decades, the training programs operated by labor- management trusts in the construction industry have been the apprenticeship models for all the industry. In fact, they are the models for the world. Just this week, I participated in a ceremony that turned a state-of-the-art apprenticeship program over to Solidarnosc, the Polish Trade Union. It was a program we were asked to develop four years ago to help the Polish workers and the Polish government prepare for the skills needed in their developing private economy.

Today there are two apprenticeship facilities fully functioning in Poland with trained Polish instructors who are training electricians, bricklayers, plumbers and other crafts. Graduates are being employed in a budding commercial and residential industry.

Just this year, in January, at the request of the State Department, we began another project to help the Egyptian construction union develop an apprenticeship program in Cairo. By September 1997, we will have trained 12 Egyptian instructors, developed curriculum and guided them through their first training classes. By next year, hundreds of Egyptian apprentices will be learning construction trades through our assistance. We want to do the same right here in the United States. The Administration's proposal has set aside funds to train welfare recipients in transportation occupations.

The Building Trades support such an effort, but we urge that the training be conducted through our time-tested and proven apprenticeship programs. Short-term, quick fixes that have been attempted in the past, serve no one. Efforts to create a skilled craft worker should be approached with the same sense of professionalism needed to train for other occupations. We urge this Committee to make apprenticeship the preferred training method for those seeking jobs in construction.

Congress cannot hope to attain anything approaching equivalency in a training program that lasts only weeks. What the government risks if it persists in high- profile programs with low-level achievement, is to doom trainees to further disappointment, adding bitterness to the despair they already possess. More importantly, as I have tried to demonstrate in my earlier testimony, poor training causes accidents and deaths.

Today, our very success in building a wonderful transportation infrastructure is part of our problem. As an example, I cite Interstate 15 which runs from Los Angeles, California, to Las Vegas, Nevada. It once was a barely-used two-lane highway running through the desert eastward from L.A. Because of it, Las Vegas developed into an economically successful family-centered entertainment phenomenon.

But today, Interstate IS is one of the most over-used interstate systems in the world, filled with thousands of cars each day. There is an overabundance of motorists who want to travel that road, and simply not enough lanes to accommodate all of them. The accident rate has climbed to dangerous levels as a result.

The problems of Interstate 15 affect two states. The answer to their problem must come from the Federal government which, alone, can look beyond state borders. I urge the Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and the Congress to select I-I5 as a national demonstration project. It epitomizes the very purpose of ISTEA. It is an important infrastructure project and it will result in a stronger economy for the surrounding areas.

Thank you.

References

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. "Workplace Injuries and Illnesses in 1995," released March 12, 1997.

Burton, J. Personal communication via letter from the Workers' Compensation Monitor, March 21, 1995.

Dedobbeleer, N.; Champagne, F.; and German, P. "Safety performance among union and nonunion workers in the construction industry, "Jour. of Occ. Med., Volume 32, No. 11, November 1990.

Engineering News Record, Marsh and McLennan, "Compensation Insurance Base Rates," 237(14):78-79. New York: McGraw Hill Company, 1996.

National Safety Council. Accident Facts: 1996 Edition, Itasca, IL, 1996.

Vincent, J. Survey of Construction Service Users, Indiana University, Institute for the Study of Labor in Society, p. 6, 1986.

Wahl, G. Personal communication with the Center to Protect Workers' Rights (research arm of the Building and Construction Trades Department) from the Colorado Compensation Insurance Loss Prevention Department, December 20, 1996.