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Bill to license ironworkers draws fire (UPDATE)

By Paul Snyder

Backers of a bill requiring ironworkers to be licensed in Wisconsin say safety is at the core of their effort. But they lack evidence showing that the ironworkers or the public would be safer with state licensure.

Nationally, data show accidents among ironworkers declined during a recent five-year period despite more people working in the trade.

“We’re just talking about safety,” said State Rep. Andy Jorgensen, D-Fort Atkinson, author of the recently introduced bill that would require the Wisconsin Department of Commerce to establish an ironworker licensing program. “We don’t want a story 20 years from now where something falls or caves in because it wasn’t built right or people weren’t properly trained.”

Under Jorgensen’s bill, ironworkers would be licensed in two categories: master and journeyman.

Both categories of workers could be grandfathered into licensure — master ironworkers would have to provide evidence of having worked 15,000 hours in the 15 years before applying for the license, and journeymen would have to provide evidence of 8,000 hours of work in the eight years before applying, as well as proof of completing an apprenticeship program.

It’s hard to argue against safety, said John Mielke, vice president of the Associated Builders & Contractors of Wisconsin Inc. But it’s difficult to show the state’s ironworkers are unsafe without providing statistics.

“Safety is an amorphous standard,” he said. “Whether you’re driving in a car or working on a construction site, you want it to be safer. Accidents no doubt have happened, but people are going to require some kind of data to get behind it.”

Jorgensen said Friday he had no data readily available to support his bill, but that his staff would have facts and figures prepared in time for the bill’s scheduled public hearing Wednesday by the Assembly Committee on Labor.

In fact, some available data show a decrease in accidents among workers.

According to national injury and illness data reports from the national Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the past five available years (2004 to 2008), incidence rates among structural steel and precast concrete contractors have declined as annual average employment increased.

National OSHA reports also showed fatalities among structural steel and precast concrete contractors rose in 2007, but dropped in 2008.

Jorgensen said he still wants to hear what Wisconsin ironworkers have to say.

Colin Teska, business manager for Milwaukee-based Iron Workers Local 8, said his union supports the licensure bill, but he could not provide any local data on accident rates in the trade. Still, Teska said with the amount of regulation Wisconsin requires in other fields, it’s not asking too much to provide protection for ironworkers.

“You need a license to drive to work,” he said. “But the people who are hanging these huge iron beams way over the public’s heads don’t need a license to do that. We’re just trying to protect the public and the industry.”

But the bill’s definition of ironwork could also pilfer jobs from other trades, Mielke said.

The bill classifies ironwork as raising, placing and uniting girders, columns and other structural steel. But also included are installing prefabricated ornamental metalwork, and rigging and raising wind turbines.

“I don’t think anybody would call tying rebar ironwork, and as far as turbines go, I believe that’s fiberglass,” Mielke said. “It kind of sounds like a jurisdictional grab.

“I’m not impugning the motives of the legislators that introduced this, but a lot of times you get these definitions of who can and who can’t do certain segments of work.”

The bill’s motive is not exclusion, Jorgensen said, and he is open to changes.

“This is not about pushing anybody out,” he said. “We are continuing every day to work on those definitions, and that is a challenge, there’s no doubt about it.”

Jorgensen and the bill’s co-sponsors will have to get a better handle on what constitutes ironwork and improved safety to get ABC’s support, Mielke said.

“‘Safer’ is tough to identify,” he said. “I’m not sure what licensure does to make it safer.”

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