Dave Baker, Opinion contributor
The anti-worker forces at work in Washington have once again lobbied to get rules drafted against working people in this country. The latest comes from the Department of Labor (DOL) in the form of expanding Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs). This is a direct threat to our working men and women across the country and to the construction industry.
The Trump Administration proposed IRAPs through an executive order in 2017. The DOL released proposed IRAPs rule in June, encouraging creation of new apprentice programs across a variety of industries. It all sounds great on the surface, but the reality is quite the horror story.
The DOL promised last year that the construction industry will be excluded from IRAPs, given its high participation in the highly successful federal Registered Apprenticeship Programs. The DOL’s proposed IRAPs rule last June provides a temporary exemption for the construction industry, but it could be reversed when the rule is finalized.
There are so many things wrong with this picture.
IRAPs will give any private entity free rein to create watered-down, random standards and certify substandard apprenticeship programs without any oversight in the construction industry where safety standards mean the difference between life and death. IRAPs would lower training, safety and quality standards, putting workers, projects and customers at risk. Lowering the bar for safety standards will lead to injuries, fatalities, costly project delays and increased chances of rework.
Nearly 5,000 workers died on construction job sites in 2015, The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. On average, unskilled workers die 12 to 1 on job sites. Construction workers perform physically demanding tasks, at dangerous heights, in harsh weather conditions, exposed to extreme temperatures, with heavy machinery and toxic substances. They must receive the highest quality training with comprehensive safety instructions to guard against the inherent dangers of the industry to deliver projects without any injuries or fatalities. Regulatory oversight is necessary in the construction industry for training quality control.
For over 80 years, the federal Registered Apprenticeship Programs in the building trades have provided comprehensive training to meet the complex, specialized and diverse needs of contractors and projects. The federal government guarantees their quality. In contrast, IRAPs will legitimize substandard "apprenticeship programs" based on questionable standards without any government oversight. Companies will claim their workers were trained to perform tasks they weren’t. Construction industry is already experiencing issues with companies knowingly forging documents and presenting fake qualification cards to win work. IRAPs will legitimize such unscrupulous employers who don’t want to invest in proper training and take shortcuts.
IRAPs don’t belong in highly hazardous industries like construction.
Many aspects of the building trade tasks such as electric work, heating and air, ironwork, welding, fall protection and pipe fitting, are highly specialized. They require specific training and expert workers to complete safely. Structures can collapse without proper welding by ironworkers. If pipes are not welded properly, they could leak poisonous gas or explode. Electrical fires and explosions can occur from improperly installed electrical work and the list goes on.
As someone who has worked on both union and non-union projects in his 26-year career as an ironworker, I can attest to the fact that there’s a huge difference between safe work environments where workers were trained through the federal apprenticeship programs in the building trades and unsafe environments where training standards are arbitrary and deficient. I stared death in the face many times working in such unsafe job sites with deficient training and safety standards. I was put to work on electrical tasks when I didn’t have any training in electric work and had no idea how to do it. I suffered two falls from lack of fall protection on those job sites. I have scars on my hands from a forklift accident when they had me operate a forklift without any training at the age of 18!
No one should be allowed to write their own random standards for apprenticeship programs or take training shortcuts in a highly dangerous industry without any oversight.
IRAPs in the construction industry would defeat the very purpose of apprenticeship programs. The premise of apprenticeship programs is to create and maintain the highest safety and quality standards with standardized curriculum under expert oversight. What’s the point of an apprenticeship program if we let anyone create random standards without supervision?
The construction industry already has a time-tested, accredited, federal Registered Apprenticeship system with the highest standards that never failed to meet its specialized needs for almost a century. IRAPs will not only jeopardize standards in the construction industry, putting workers and customers at risk, but also endanger the public who use the buildings and infrastructure the workers build. IRAPs have no place in the construction industry and the construction industry should be permanently excluded from it.
Dave Baker is the business manager of Iron Workers Local 44 in Cincinnati.
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