Fairfax County's seven-month-old experiment of using county building inspectors to spot construction site hazards has led to an increase in safety citations, but not to an end to the controversy over the program.
"It's overkill," fumes Charles Boyer, president of the Northern Virginia Builders Association and an opponent of the plan. "It creates a burden for the builder."
But county officials who contended the fast-growing Washington suburbs were being ignored by Virginia's small force of safety inspectors, say the county's cooperative effort with the U.S. Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors is working and should curb what they say is the region's high rate of construction-related fatalities.
Since the county's 190 building inspectors completed a five-week course in how to spot safety violations, the county has referred almost 40 cases to federal inspectors for correction. That's well above the rate of cases. Fairfax officials say, that state inspectors were handling in the county on their own.
"The difference in attitude between the Virginia officials and the federal inspectors is like night and day," says Fairfax Supervisor Audrey Moore (D-Annandale). Until the county began its program, worried workers "would call for a Virginia inspector and no one would come for 10 years," she says.
"We have 190 people constantly reminding builders of safety requirements compared to three or four under the state program," says Richard Lawson, deputy director of the county's inspection service division. "We are sensing a higher degree of compliance and a willingness on the part of builders to make corrections after our inspectors see the sites."
Not all the builders in the suburbs say the program is working that well. "OSHA (the federal agency) is unreal and not practical," says Charles Russell, president of Skyline crane services, which has been cited for nine safety violations. "I think that before a guy inspects he should know the condition of the job site. When they [the county inspectors] come out on the job, they lack experience and I think they stink."
David Rhone, regional administrator for OSHA, says the federal government which is quarreling with Virginia over the effectiveness of the state inspection program, likes the Fairfax program. "All reports are that the system is working very well," he says. "They's made their presence felt and the contractors know it."
That hasn't stopped Northern Virginia builders from longing for a return to state safety inspection. "It's closer to home and much more workable," says Robert Woodward of the Heavy Construction Contractors Association. "To me, the comparison is the effectiveness of the federal police -- if they existed -- operating in Virginia versus the state police. There is no question of who would do a better job."
State officials agree with the builders and this spring obtained a federal court order blocking the Labor Department from withdrawing its approval of the state's inspection program.
"Our record is better than OSHA's," says Paul G. Edwards, press secretary for Gov. John N. Dalton. "We have more manpower available than the federal government does."
Union officials and Northern Virginianas, however, dispute Edward's analyis and say that regardless of manpower, the state inspection program depends on a flawed enforcement program.
"The whole way they enforce violations in Virginia is without question far less stringent than the federal government's program," said Steven Wodka of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, "There is no question about it -- federal enforcement has got to take over or the workers are never going to be protected."
The Labor Department and the unions have criticized the state's use of criminal courts rather than administrative proceeding to settle the safety disputes.
Under the state plan, a contractor can appeal a violation citation to a general district court, unlike the federal program, which sends appeals to a review commission and to administrative law judges.