Screening for safety
Assessing a contractor's safety performance
Awarding public contracts
Many construction contracts involve public projects. However, advocacy group Public Citizen claims that states often do not require contractors to meet safety criteria or put too much emphasis on lagging indicators such as EMRs and fatality numbers.
In a series of reports, the Washington, D.C.-based group examined construction fatality costs in Washington state, Maryland and California. More reports are expected, but of those three states, only California addressed safety in its prequalification system, and Public Citizen was not satisfied with the state’s criteria.
“I think the problem is that states and industry just rely on OSHA’s guidance and they don’t really step up and attempt to change the culture around safety and health in construction,” said Keith Wrightson, worker safety and health advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and author of the reports.
He said states should be taking a more “progressive approach” by considering factors such as whether the contractor conducts job safety meetings, provides personal protective equipment and ensures workers receive extensive training.
Even if safety is considered during prequalification, state and local statutes often require the government to choose the “lowest responsible bidder,” which Philips said could work against safety interests. To produce a low bid, the contractor may cut back on safety or in another area.
Woods highlighted a related issue: The private sector has more flexibility to incorporate safety into the final selection process and make a decision that is not based on price alone. Conversely, some state statutes are written so that safety comes up only during prequalification – the contractor must meet the basic requirements, but safety is not considered in the final bid selection.
“That pushes against handling it in what I think is the best way, which is a relative evaluation,” Wood said. “I think it is more worthwhile to try to come up with some sort of system that provides a sliding scale. So rather than treating safety and health as a threshold qualification, it is best treated as an element in the decision, so that people who have ‘very good’ programs get an edge over people who have just ‘good’ programs.”