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Look for surge in highway construction safety activity (3/4)

March 4, 2009
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President Obama’s recently enacted stimlus package, American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, is expected to create or save 3.5 million jobs by the end of next year, according to the White House. One specific area of investment calls for spending $28 billion on highway construction alone. Using the same economic model that predicted the overall job growth, the White House states this particular investment will lead to 150,000 jobs saved or created by the end of 2010, with about 95,000 related to construction work.

That’s a lot of personal protective equipment — hard hats, gloves, goggles, steel-toe boots, hearing protectors, fall protection equipment, and high-visibility clothing.

The White House reports the boom in blue collar welders, mixers, laborers, machinery operators, carpenters, etc. will result from the direct impact of building new roads and fixing old ones, leading to employment for persons who, without this investment, would be out of work. This effect is responsible for just under two-thirds of the 150,00 jobs, about 95,000, according to the White House.

The remaining jobs come from the economic activity generated when these new workers spend more than they would have otherwise. For example, someone who gets a job fixing a road through the Recovery Act might buy more groceries or more apparel, and this leads to more activity by grocers and retailers. This effect explains about 55,000 of these jobs, according to the White House.

Finally, the White House notes that it says these 150,000 jobs would be "saved or created." In some cases, current employees on highway crews or in other sectors where these workers spend money will avoid layoffs due to these investments. Had the Recovery Act not passed, they would have become unemployed. Other jobs will be newly created providing a new job slot that did not exist before.

President Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that $27 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds are headed to states to provide critical repairs to what the White House describes as the “nation's crumbling roads and bridges.”

Since local leaders - mayors and governors - know their communities best, much of the money is left to states' discretion. If states don't use it, they lose it. To make sure that funds go out quickly to give the economy the jolt it needs, states have 120 days to assign the funds to specific projects.

That’s a sudden jolt of adrenaline to the highway construction industry, and to related safety and health programs. Look for an increase in demand for construction safety training programs, safety toolbox talks, incentive programs and free OSHA compliance assistance materials.

Highway infrastructure investments will not only be given to state-based projects. The ARRA also calls for investments in federal lands and capital expenditure projects such as park roads and parkways and ferry boat construction.

You can expect OSHA to continue its heavy emphasis on construction-related hazardous work. In 2008, OSHA targeted highway, street, and bridge construction; residential building construction; and commercial and institution building construction for its Enhanced Enforcement Program (EEP). Trenching hazards were one of the areas targeted by OSHA’s National Emphasis Programs.

Federal OSHA conducted more than 39,000 inspections in fiscal year 2008, with more than half of all inspections occurring at construction sites, many of them small, non-union contractors.

With the construction industry accounting for five percent of national employment but 20 percent of job fatalities, expect calls for even closer OSHA scrutiny of construction work as new infrastructure projects get underway, and for the agency to address long-lingering standards projects relating to cranes and derricks, silica exposures, confined spaces in construction, and hearing protection in construction.

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