Last August, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a partnership with Balfour Beatty Construction to promote worker safety at a newly launched construction project in Midtown.
But nine months later, OSHA is investigating a crane collapse at the 1018 West Peachtree Street apartment tower, which injured four workers and displaced 1,000 Midtown residents for over a week. The 34-story Kinetic residential tower is the second of two apartment towers that general contractor Balfour Beatty is building on the site with luxury home developer Toll Brothers after completing the adjacent Momentum building, both designed for students attending nearby Georgia Tech and Georgia State University.
But on May 22, a crane malfunctioned and fell onto the top portion of the Kinetic building, collapsing the 9th and 10th floors. The incident prompted the evacuation of four nearby residential buildings and adjacent street closures, while four construction workers were briefly hospitalized.
“This could have been a whole lot worse,” Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said at a news conference the next day.
What sticks out to Sandra Williams, president of the Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council, about the crane accident was the lack of unionized labor. The Balfour Beatty construction workers, she says, were not unionized. “I don’t know if there was something faulty with the crane,” says Williams. “But we feel that that in and of itself speaks largely about the value of having properly trained individuals.”
Balfour Beatty did not respond to Atlanta Civic Circle’s requests for comment, but they previously released a statement that said it is “working closely” with OSHA and Atlanta officials in their investigation of the crane failure.
When OSHA announced the partnership with Balfour Beatty last August for the 1018 West Peachtree construction project, it was the benefits of public-private partnerships – not a unionized workforce – that it lauded for promoting workplace safety. “Public-private sector partnerships that focus on training and eliminating hazards during major construction projects are proven methods for eliminating hazards and improving workplace safety and health for workers,” OSHA Area Director Jeffery Stawowy said in a press release at the time.
“We applaud Balfour Beatty Construction for its commitment to workplace safety and to ensuring every worker on the project ends their shift safely,” Stawowy added.
But ironically, OSHA’s own research backs up Williams’ assertion that construction sites employing union labor are safer for workers. A blog post on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website highlights a 2021 report from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute found that unionized construction sites are 19% less likely to incur an OSHA violation and overall incur 34% fewer violations per OSHA inspection than non-unionized worksites. The report also found that only 14% of US construction industry employees are unionized, but their employers account for a disproportionately low 5% of the industry’s OSHA violations.
“While union representation is not a magic bullet to workplace safety problems, there is little doubt that it makes a positive difference,” reads a post co-authored by two Department of Labor officials.
Balfour Beatty is a major construction contractor in Atlanta. In the last five years it’s built projects including the West Manor Elementary School in Southwest Atlanta, and office and apartment towers in Midtown. However, like other local construction contractors, it employs a non-union workforce. Georgia is a right-to-work state and has the ninth-lowest union participation rate in the country.
Global labor violations
Houston-based Balfour Beatty Construction’s parent company is Balfour Beatty, a global infrastructure giant headquartered in the U.K., which has a history of labor issues that go beyond a lack of unionized labor.
In 2016, the company was accused of a host of labor abuses in Qatar by migrant workers from Bangladesh, India and Nepal building soccer stadiums and other projects for the World Cup that Qatar hosted in 2022. The workers were employed on major projects operated by BK Gulf, co-owned by Balfour Beatty and Qatari companies, as part of the pre-World Cup construction boom.
The workers said the Balfour Beatty-Qatari joint venture companies’ labor recruiter charged them high fees, causing them to incur debt to secure the jobs. Once in Qatar, they said, their passports were confiscated and they were paid less than they’d contracted for, effectively rendering them prisoners with high levels of debt bondage. “The workers spoke of a culture of fear and intimidation, with threats of arrest or deportation if they stepped out of line,” according to the Guardian.
These abuses prompted Amnesty International and other human rights groups to condemn Balfour Beatty for labor abuses and calls for boycotts of the 2022 World Cup. Balfour Beatty responded by issuing a “modern slavery and labor exploitation” guide to their global subcontractors and suppliers.
Balfour Beatty was also one of the top British construction firms among 40 in all that paid 55 million pounds in compensation and legal fees in 2016 to more than 1,100 unionized construction workers who were secretly blacklisted between 1993 and 2009. The companies had maintained a database of individual workers’ political leanings and perceived militancy and denied work to those deemed troublemakers, according to the Guardian. In 2021, Balfour Beatty faced multiple protests, work shutdowns, and strikes from workers on its U.K. projects.