Despite a toll of 14 worker deaths in the last two years, Northern Virginia's booming construction industry went virtually uninspected during peak building months this year by the state agency responsible for enforcing safety laws.
According to records of the Virginia Division of Construction Safety in Richmond, from April through August inspectors averaged only 10 visits each month to job sites employing a total of about 150 workers -- about 2 percent of the area's nearly 2,000 construction sites and 30,000 workers.
"That constitutes criminal negligence on the part of the state," says Supervisor Audrey Moore (D) of Fairfax County, which alone has an estimated 1,030 active construction sites and has been pressuring the state for stronger safety measures.
Interviews with officials and an examination of state records suggest that budgetary constraints, red tape and lax punishment of violators all contribute to what Moore and other critics contend is a total breakdown in state enforcement.
The division's Northern Virginia office, budgeted for three inspectors -- a number that local officials contend is far too few -- actually had only two on duty for the first eight months of 1979. The reason: a third inspector retired, and officials had difficulty finding a qualified replacement for a job that requires one to five years of experience in construction and pays an annual starting salary of $12,528.
State officials contend that the few inspectors they do have are inundated with federally-mandated paperwork to the point where they average only about one-fifth the number of inspections they did 10 years ago.
Officials concede punishment of violators is minimal -- fines for a serious violation cannot exceed $1,000 -- and judges usually reduce proposed fines even further. In 1978, the state asked $146,940 in penalties in 140 cases, but only $41,110 was assessed.
"The name of the game is money," says Charles G. Wicker, director of the state Division of Construction Safety. "For a lot of companies, it's cheaper to pay than to fix the violation."
Wicker insists his agency does the best it can with its limited resources, although critics counter that the state lacks not only the money, but the will to enforce safety laws.
"Gov. Dalton, who constantly is preaching about the state's pro-business climate, is in reality sending a message that says 'come to Virginia and we won't bother you about safety'," says Steven Wodka of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union.
Dalton Press Secretary Paul G. Edwards denies Wodka's charge, saying the state "rigorously enforces safety regulations within the limits of government manpower and budget." But Edwards said state planners are actively considering the option of shutting down the state's worker safety program and returning jurisdiction to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
If the state does not act, OSHA might. Officials there, who monitor the state program, say privately they have increasing doubts about Virginia's commitment to safety. They especially question the effectiveness of the state law requiring that safety cases be litigated in Virginia's 128 General District Courts.
"It's rather farfetched to believe that the same courts that handle speeding tickets and divorce cases can deal with complex questions of worker safety," says one OSHA official, who says OSHA is reviewing the entire program and may withdraw preliminary approval it granted three years ago.
Federal officials' doubts resulted earlier this month in a two-week crackdown in which a 15-inspector federal task force descended on Northern Virginia nonresidential construction sites and wrote nearly 200 citations.
Virginia officials, who are locked in an increasingly bitter dispute with their federal watchdogs, contend OSHA is reacting to political pressures from labor groups that have little standing with state government in this traditional Right-to-Work state. And the officials get a strong vote of support from industry representatives, who say they prefer to toil under state regulation rather than under the much-reviled OSHA.
But to the families of victims of construction accidents, the state and its supporters are trying to cover up the extent of the danger.
"They're perpetuating a terrible injustice," says Joan Baker of Springfield, whose son Robert was buried alive and killed last year with a close friend when an unshored trench they were working in collapsed at an Annandale subdivision.
"There are real lives and real human beings being killed and you can't whitewash it by calling it political," says Baker.
Construction is the most dangerous line of work in the United States, according to the Department of Labor. It estimates 925 construction workers were killed on the job last year -- 20 percent of all work-related deaths in the nation, despite the fact that construction workers constitute only 5 percent of the workforce.
"It's rough, it's dirty and it's dangerous and you've got to be on your toes all the time," says John Quackenbush, a former construction worker who is now secretary-treasurer of the Washington Building Trades Council of the AFL-CIO.
Virginia construction safety chief Wicker says the industry is uniquely hard to police because conditions at job sites are constantly changing.
"You can order one company to put up a guard rail today for one group of workers and tomorrow at noon, another subcontractor will come along and tear it down," says Wicker.
Wicker, who joined the division as an inspector in 1968, fondly recalls the late 1960s when, he says, "We'd give the employer a good tongue-lashing, or if it was serious enough, we'd go directly to court. It was a very effective system."
Not everyone agrees. Quackenbush contends the old system was a disaster, that inspectors often worked hand in hand with companies and overlooked violations.
Whatever the truth, the system died a sudden death in 1972 under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, which created OSHA to take over the policing of worker safety.
The law allowed states to reassert jurisdiction if they could develop programs at least as effective as the federal one. Virginia was among 26 states that have submitted such plans and received preliminary approval to operate under federal scrutiny.
But from the start, relations between the state and federal agencies have been uneasy at best. Instead of one form, state inspectors now must fill out at least a half dozen. Wicker complains that inspectors now visit only two or three job sites a week instead of the 15 to 20 they used to get to. o
Federal officials concede paperwork has increased but argue it's necessary to construct a case that can survive inevitable court challenges.
The real problem is the philosophical difference between federal officials, who see the state as reluctant to regulate industry, and state officials who see OSHA as another layer of onerous federal regulation.
"OSHA is a dirty word in Richmond," says Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax). "That's not just the view of the legislature, it's the view of the state bureaucracy as well."
Plum says one factor is the clout of the state's powerful construction lobby. Last year, Plum consponsored a resolution to study worker's compensation and other laws with an eye toward increasing penalties against employers willfully negligent in worker accidents. It was defeated in committee by a 7-to-0 vote after lobbyists attacked it.
Fairfax County officials, angered by the spate of construction accidents since 1978, are moving to file suit against both the federal and state safety agencies in an effort to get more inspectors into the area.
The county's earlier complaints spurred a two-month crackdown by state officials on trench violations last September and October. Inspectors found 18 violations in Northern Virginia involving some of the area's largest companies, including William A. Hazel Inc., Centex Homes of Washington and William B. Hopke Co. of Alexandria.
But it was questionable whether the crackdown had much impact on safety. Three weeks after it ended, another worker died, buried alive in an unshored trench on a Hopke project. CAPTION: Picture, AUDREY MOORE . . . says state is criminally negligentt