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Chicago-Land, Illinois

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Steve Smalling
Steve Smalling
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The safety of Illinois construction workers to be debated by the Illinois Legislature.

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One would assume that safe work practices on construction sites would be the top priority of everyone involved in the industry.  Few occupations pose the risks and hazards of those encountered by workers involved in the construction of buildings, bridges and other structures.  These safety concerns were recognized in 1907 with the passage of the Structural Work Act which allowed seriously injured workers to seek damages from those entities in the best position to implement and enforce safety rules and regulations.    This law was repealed by a Republican dominated legislature in 1995 at the urging of business and insurance interests who viewed it as a financial burden.    The issue of protecting workers and construction safety is once again before lawmakers and we can anticipate vigorous debate on both sides of the aisle.

Under the direction of House Speaker Michael Madigan, House Bill No.: 2094, entitled the Construction Safety Act of 2008, was  scheduled for hearing last week before the House Civil Judiciary Committee chaired by State Rep. John Fritchey, D-Chicago.    The bill recognizes the need for additional protection of workers in the construction industry given the disproportionate number of deaths and serious injuries which occur.  It is patterned after the defunct Structural Work Act and specifically acknowledges the legislature’s intention that it should be interpreted consistently with precedent and court decisions interpreting that Act.

As expected, introduction of the bill was met with resistance by the business community and special interest groups such as the Illinois Manufacturers’ Assn.  ChicagoBusiness.com characterized the bill as being a “contentious work rule” and pointed out that the prior law had drawn the ire of the business community which said it subjected businesses to more lawsuits and escalated insurance costs.  Rep. Fritchey is quoted as saying “he was bracing for opposition to passage of the act” and that “Any piece of legislation should be able to withstand vigorous debate, and this one is no different.”

When it comes to the issue of protecting the lives and well being of construction workers and their families in Illinois, it would seem that there would be little room for disagreement.  Unfortunately, this debate will once again boil down to worker safety versus economic profit.  Expect to hear the same opposition and arguments to the proposed law that led to the Structural Work Act’s repeal and attempt to revive it in 2003.  Let’s hope that the current legislature gives priority to workplace safety over the profit margins of big business and insurance companies.