Lawmakers consider state oversight of workplace safety

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BOSTON (AP) – Concerned that the current system to regulate safety at construction sites puts too much responsibility on the federal government, Massachusetts lawmakers are considering developing a plan that would transfer more power to the state.

The idea to take over workplace safety rules from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration was discussed Tuesday at a legislative hearing that was prompted by last week’s scaffolding collapse in downtown Boston that killed three people.

Members of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security heard from state and city officials and industry leaders on ways to improve safety at work sites.

Senate chairman Jarrett Barrios, D-Cambridge, asked each panelist whether creating a state OSHA plan would improve oversight of work places, whose spot inspections are left to the federal agency. Critics say federal inspections are infrequent because of a lack of resources.

Twenty-six states have adopted their own workplace safety rules rather than rely on oversight by the federal OSHA, Barrios said. Federal law allows states to take over jurisdiction from OSHA, but Vermont is the only New England state that has done that. OSHA approves and monitors state plans and provides up to 50 percent of an approved plan’s operating costs.

States must set job safety and health standards that are “at least as effective as” comparable federal standards, an OSHA spokesman said.

Robert Prezioso, the director of the state Division of Occupational Safety, said his office would be open to discussing a state plan, but said the process to get it approved by the federal government is lengthy and requires cooperation between legislators and the executive branch.

He also worried about long-term funding and staffing levels if it’s left to the state government.

“We are open to discussions,” he told lawmakers. He said that he believes OSHA is “doing everything they can in Massachusetts.” He also noted that Massachusetts has workplace illness and injury rates below the national average.

Safety and oversight questions were raised after a construction platform collapsed and crashed 13 stories onto the street below last Monday, killing two construction workers and a man whose car was crushed. The site is the future home of an Emerson College dormitory.

Killed were Robert E. Beane, 41, and 27-year-old Romildo Silva – both employees of subcontractor Bostonian Masonry – and motorist Michael Tsan Ty, 28, a Boston doctor.

Work has not resumed at the site, but city inspectors gave Macomber Builders, the contractor, initial approval to go back to work. John Macomber, president of the company, said he hoped workers would be back at the site by the end of the week.

“From what I hear from the tradespeople on the job, they are eager to get back to work and to finish this project. In part this is a way to honor those who perished,” he said.

In a report drafted by Macomber and released by the city on Monday, the accident was blamed on worker error. It said a subcontractor laborer removed a metal tie connecting the scaffolding to the side of the building making it vulnerable to collapse.

OSHA is inspecting the accident.

Joseph Dart, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, said at the hearing that a state OSHA plan “is certainly something to look at” but added that he’s concerned it may “just move chairs around” rather than improve safety.

“Whatever we consider, this has to be a commitment,” he said.

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