Worker Correspondents: Construction Safety Rules Protect Contractors, Not Workers

By a Texas Pipefitter

Contractors go out of their way to promote workplace safety practices, and while we want to work safely and without injury, these rules are ultimately used to put the responsibility for safety on workers and protect the interests of the contractors. They use heavy-handed methods to enforce the safety rules when it benefits them, while looking the other way when the need to complete a dangerous job gets in the way of profits.

I work as a pipefitter on a massive construction site managed by one of the largest general contractors in the country, and the safety rules are very strict and enforced aggressively, at least when it suits the bosses. The bureaucratic enforcement slows down our work significantly, but we are still expected to meet tight deadlines.

Every morning we have a mandatory site-wide safety meeting before we are allowed in the work area, and each crew has to sign permits and safety reviews for every task and then get them approved by a superintendent and someone from their safety team. This can take up to an hour and we aren’t allowed to start working until this whole process has been completed.

Our general contractor is well known for its ridiculous safety rules, such as banning ladders. If we need to reach a high place, one person has to move a scissor lift into place, which often ends up being in tight, difficult to reach spaces while another person is forced to stop work and walk beside the lift to spot for the operator. If we reach a space where a lift won’t fit, we need to use rolling stairs which are very inconvenient and genuinely feel more dangerous than a ladder.

The general contractor’s safety team takes a lot of pleasure in enforcing the rules really aggressively. They go out of their way to stop us right in the middle of a task and belittle us for the most minor of violations, like briefly taking your gloves off to use your phone. The safety guys try to act like they’re looking out for us, but they act like cops and constantly threaten to get us fired.

When we work the way the safety guys want us to, we work slowly and our boss and the general contractor’s superintendents get angry at us for being behind schedule. When we work the way the boss wants us to, we get in trouble with the safety guys and end up even more behind schedule because we’ve been shut down for a safety violation.

For all their talk about compliance with safety rules, the safety guys look the other way when we need to do something dangerous in order to get the job done. Last week, it was a group of ironworkers’ last day on site and they needed to raise support columns, but that morning our boss had us start hanging a section of pipe. Right as we start lifting the pipe, the ironworkers show up and try to start working in this tight corridor beneath the load with thousands of pounds of steel suspended over their heads. They looked worried but kept working as my foreman ran the forklift holding this load over their heads. The corridor is so narrow that if the pipe fell, there would be no escape. If the rigging had failed or if the forklift operator had been sloppy, multiple people would have died. Safety had been watching us like hawks all week and getting angry over minor violations, but conveniently they weren’t around that morning.

These rules don’t exist to keep us safe and workers recognize that. The rules exist to keep the general contractor’s insurance rates down, which allows them to rake in even higher profits, and to prevent lawsuits. Injuries mean production has to temporarily stop and will likely be slowed down for the whole day, so they want to prevent injuries up until the point that the rules get in the way of their profit margin. It isn’t motivated by any concern or love for the workers and our families, but for their bottom line.

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