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Capitol Dome Workers Pause for 'Safety Stand-Down'

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Construction workers who scale the Capitol Dome each day gathered Wednesday morning to learn about safety procedures and fall prevention.  

Dozens of workers in their neon vests and hard hats listened to a number of technical experts and government officials as part of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's second annual National Safety Stand-Down, encouraging construction companies across the country to take a break from work and discuss fall prevention strategies. “This is a massive project, as you all know better than I do. It has challenges that you’ve probably not faced on other construction projects," said Deputy Secretary of Labor Chris Lu, also a former congressional staffer. "And I want to tell you, as somebody who has spent a dozen years of my life working in the buildings around here, the work you do has a special connection to me and to all Americans who value this national treasure.”  

Lu said it is important for workers to remember their loved ones would be affected if they were injured on the job. He also placed the onus on employers for implementing proper safety procedures and training.  

The Capitol Dome restoration's general contractor, Turner Construction, emphasized that its safety standards are well above OSHA's minimum requirements.  

"We go well above the minimum standard," Cindy DePrater, Turner's Vice President of environmental health and safety, told CQ Roll Call. "It’s very, very technical."  

The Dome restoration is a joint venture with Turner and Smoot Construction Company, though DePrater estimated there are around a dozen other subcontractors working on the project.  

DePrater said some of the safety procedures in place involve scaffolding with a top rail, a mid rail and a toe rail to protect workers. The company also has steps, as opposed to ladders, and one-person lifts to allow workers to move around. While they're contained by the rails and lifts, workers do not have to wear a harness. But, any time they are more than six feet off the ground, they must be in these structures or be tied to a harness.  

"Any time you are six feet or above, you will be protected by something like this," she said, referencing the rails, "or a harness tied off to an anchor point.”  

The nearly $60 million Capitol Dome restoration project also provides a unique challenge for the construction company, as it works to complete the restoration by January 2017.  

“Because the Dome is so sensitive and the resting points are so sensitive, you can only put a certain number of people up on that scaffolding at any one time,” said DePrater.  

Managers said roughly 150 workers work on the Dome, with night and day shifts. Most of the workers attending the Wednesday morning event were part of the day shift.  

“All we’re asking workers to do is, if you’re standing here you should know what’s happening around you," DePrater said. "You should never just laser focus on something without understanding that this hazard is over your shoulder, or this hazard is something you're going to face when you walk another five feet.”  

But DePrater also said the employer has a responsibility to communicate to the workers that safety comes first.  

"The most important thing we can do with these workers is say, 'We care,'" she said. "And anytime they feel unsafe they should feel that they can stop the work.”  

According to OSHA, 291 construction workers died in 2013 due to falls, amounting to more than 30 percent of  all construction deaths. Jim Maddux, the head of OSHA's Directorate of Construction, said the stand-down at the Capitol was one of thousands of other stand-downs across the country this week.  

"Last year we started this stand-down to try and really raise awareness of fall hazards, how big of a problem it is, and how preventable they are," Maddux said. This year, he said OSHA hopes to host 20,000 stand-downs, reaching 3 million workers.  

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