Rocky Tallent, a retired construction worker from Knoxville, buried his 27-year-old son, Michael, after a work-related accident claimed his life on New Year's Eve in 2012.
On Wednesday, Tallent testified before a Tennessee legislative committee about proposed workplace safety requirements that he says could have helped save his son's life.
The elder Tallent worked in heavy construction for more than 30 years, and he testified before legislators Wednesday that his son was killed because of the negligence of the construction firm that hired him through a temporary employment agency.
Michael Tallent was electrocutedwhen the heavy equipment he was operating struck a power line.
"They were putting my son on front-end loaders, which are machines with a scoop on the front to dig into the earth, and showing him how to operate the equipment without a license or the proper training," Tallent said while testifying in favor of two bills that are being introduced in the state House of Representatives.
According to federal statistics, construction jobs in Tennessee accounted for nearly 1 out of every 5 worker deaths in 2012. And the majority of those deaths were transportation-related accidents, mainly involving road construction workers.
One construction company, for instance, accounted for four deaths from 2010 to 2012, two of which were at the Henley Bridge in Knoxville.
2 bills discussed
The two safety-related bills discussed in the General Assembly on Wednesday were proposed by state Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville.
The first bill, HB2017, targets the period of time between an initial incident or complaint filed with the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administrationand when the investigation is completed. In the interim, the company may not be required to correct any issues that might put other workers in jeopardy.
According to Stewart, that length of time can be detrimental to the safety of the remaining employees at the site.
"The situation today is that (the contractors) keep appealing, so months or years later, (when) the courts finally reach a decision, and meanwhile, they (could still be) killing or injuring people," Stewart said.
As proposed, if the TOSHA administrator deems a hazardous condition to be a serious or willful violation of the safety codes, the hazard would need to be fixed even while the appeals process is ongoing.
The second bill, HB2018, proposes that the Tennessee Department of Labor Workforce Development establish a questionnaire and rating system to evaluate bidders on potential construction projects regarding safety conditions and health performance.
The questionnaires would focus on several key factors, including site-specific occupational safety and health plans; commitment from leadership positions to upholding health and safety policies; the encouragement of employees to speak out about hazardous conditions; and training for employees in a language and format that each employee can understand.
Workers on strike
Several of the construction fatalities in Tennessee involved men of Latino decent, according to federal statistics.
This is a major concern for Carlos Guzman of Knoxville, who had worked construction jobs for 15 years. He recently went on strike because of potentially dangerous work conditions.
"We need a situation where the bosses aren't always on your back, harassing you to work faster, trying to get you to do things you aren't trained for (and) putting workers in dangerous conditions," Guzman said during an interview Wednesday after the legislative hearing.
Guzman was not alone on the picket line.
Dwayne Sweat, 35, of Oak Ridge, worked nearly five months before twisting his knee while maneuvering around his work space on the Henley Bridge in Knoxville. He said he had safety concerns while working on the bridge project. The construction company carrying out the work was ultimately fined several thousand dollars by TOSHA after the worker deaths.
"I put on my work boots in the morning, then I pick up my tool belt," Sweat said. "I don't pick up a rifle because I am going to work, not war. I shouldn't have to worry about if I am going to make it home to my daughter each night."