Even in the twenty-first century, construction is a dangerous undertaking for many who work in the building industry. Using all manner of power tools in highly constrained environments for the purposes of building remains hazardous for human life, and particularly for those who build with masonry. Masonry construction can be difficult and arduous, and those who labor in the trowel trades know this all too well. Are we, as design professionals, sufficiently aware of this fact? Do we address the very real human risks associated with building with masonry when we detail and specify the use of brick, block, stone, tile, and plaster?
The fatality rate for work-related injuries reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) by way of incident reports Form (OSHA-170) between 1970 and 2022 was just over 30%, yet the rate for those employed in the construction industry was over 50%.1 In 150,000 OSHA incidents, that were serious enough to involve the OSHA 170 form, over 30% were construction related: 3.4% of which were associated with the trowel trades while 17% were linked to carpentry. Undoubtedly, carpentry occasioned more incidents, yet masonry incidents were more fatal.2 Significantly, however, according to the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, in “over 37,000 OSHA inspections in the construction industry in 2019, … union worksites ha[d] significantly fewer health and safety violations.”3
And as argued in this essay, increased access to education throughout the career of masons and tile setters is a necessary precondition for ameliorating the health and safety of those who labor on our behalf.
Craftworkers learn best practices, acquire greater expertise, and are acculturated to safer and more equitable work environments when they formally apprentice and participate in forms of continuing education. This is the on-going mission of the International Masonry Institute (IMI) and its affiliated organizations, charged with instructing masons, contractors, and designers on the manufacture, installation, and performance of unit masonry.4 Triangulating knowledge between designers, laborers, and industry leaders ensures the sharing and co-creation of best practices in detailing and construction. To this end, according to Roy Ingraffia, National Director of Industry Development at IMI, the group contributes to the education of design professionals by providing “technical support services at no cost” that help the “design and construction community better understand masonry and tile and restoration approaches … so they in turn choose to work with the people who have the appropriate skills to install or repair masonry products, materials, and assemblies.”5 In addition, key to the mission of IMI and the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (BAC), is “attracting and maintaining a younger and more diverse workforce” of “union masons and union masonry contractors.”6 According to Ingraffia, increased diversity amongst the ranks of trowel craftworkers is key to their future. To this end, they seek to “make these crafts more attractive, and also more viable and relevant for the future.”7 For IMI, increased participation is only possible when “the door is open to everyone.”8 Challenges remain substantial, however: attracting new trainees to the trowel trades is difficult enough, ensuring they stay is even more so. As Ingraffia notes: “It’s one thing to put a trowel in someone’s hand and to teach them a trade, … the harder part is supporting them through all the other things that weigh them down in the world, whether it’s financial insecurity, food insecurity, the risk of deportation, or support during pregnancy.” BAC and its affiliated organizations offer their members access to health and maternity benefits, childcare discounts, and access to the International Health Fund and the International Masonry Training and Education Foundation. In matters of equity and fairness, Ingraffia affirms: “we seek to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to succeed.” In this way, both IMI and BAC are “advocates for migrant workers … who come to the US seeking opportunities.”9 As supporters of organized labor, both groups speak on behalf of trowel craftworkers who may be “unorganized and who are potentially exploited.”10 As Ingraffia described, craftworkers who have achieved demonstrable skills are entitled to the same wage regardless of gender, place of origin, or mother tongue. [Figure 1]
And yet, as noted by Matt Stafford, Northeast Regional Representative of BAC, successful outreach to migrant mason communities remains a challenge in the Philadelphia region.11 Many are understandably reticent to participate in quasi-institutional programs, however, it will be critical to gain the participation of our newly arrived neighbors as future union craftworkers as they already labor in this space with much knowledge, enthusiasm, and commitment. They are also the best hope for circumventing decreased numbers of young people who choose to become mason apprentices. As Stafford noted, in the early 1990s, when filling the ranks of new apprentices, “everybody was somebody’s son or grandson or nephew.”12 When he started his own apprenticeship in 1991, masons were second and third generation apprentices. This is no longer the case as intergenerational masons in our region have all but disappeared. As Stafford reminds us, notwithstanding “bricklayers and trowel tradespeople are earning a good living, when it comes time for their children to start thinking about what they are going to do for a living, because the work is so physically hard and strenuous, people want better for their children.”13 Even so, masons have increased their economic position over the past decade at a rate that has outpaced fellow trades people. According to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, between the years 2000 and 2022, members of the trowel trades (brick and block masons, stone masons, cement masons and concrete finishers, and terrazzo workers and finishers) earned higher salaries (in mean annual wages) than both carpenters and electricians, earning 8.3% more than carpenters and 23.6% more than electricians.14 Most recently, in 2022, brick and block masons earned 14% more in Pennsylvania than carpenters. [Figure 2]
And yet, data reveals losses in the number of masons participating in the building industry. Since 2000, the trowel trades have lost 9.8% of their members and the rate of member retirement continues to outpace the rate of new apprentices. Reasons for which are not difficult to intuit. Working in extreme conditions (hot or cold) is not for everyone. Neither is working at heights and hanging off a thirty-story swing scaffold. As signaled by Stafford, at “forty, fifty, and even sixty you’re still working the same way in the same conditions, lifting the same material, as the twenty-five-year-old sitting next to you.”15 The difference is that “the twenty-five-year-old goes home that night to play in a softball game while you're immediately hitting the couch [in pain].”16 Increasingly, recruiting new masons is difficult because high-school graduates may not have access to the kinds of resources needed to work in the construction industry, “including a driver’s license or a vehicle .... It’s not very realistic to think that you’re going to get to construction projects all around Philadelphia” on public transportation. Hence, BAC recruits amongst individuals in their mid-twenties who may be more financially established including returning military personnel with whom they participate in a program called “Helmets to Hard Hats.”17 Recruiting new BAC members requires innovative thinking and added resourcefulness. According to Stafford, this necessitates “casting the net out into the public … [with union members] constantly at career fairs and high school days.”18
And yet, many a residential housing project in Philadelphia is routinely built with non-union brick labor whose work, according to Stafford is of “good quality, efficient, and productive,” even if the site they labor on is “sometimes not as safe” as he would like. Notwithstanding his attempts to engage masons is often met with reticence, according to Stafford, BAC “needs to have organizers, people to connect with the migrant workforce that look and talk like the workforce.”19 Seeking to collaborate with migrant community organizations and church groups, BAC believes that helping immigrant and migrant workers gain access to dignified middle-class jobs is critical. That includes supporting their gainful employment in the US if needed. One tool at their disposal is the ‘Deferred Action Program’ which according to BAC “provides a path for immigrant workers to stand up to corrupt contractors, expose the shadow economy in which these bad actors thrive, and obtain work authorizations that will afford them the workplace protections that all workers seek.”20 Stafford believes more such programs are required: “Every day we have members who are retiring, which means our ranks are decreasing, but the amount of construction and the amount of masonry and tile in construction is increasing.”21 A solution is needed for migrants that addresses the very real risks associated with choosing a career in the trowel trades.
Sometimes risks are to the very body of the laborer: At “our retiree functions, you can watch these guys come in, and everybody is bent or hunched in a different way, and everybody talks about their shoulder and knee replacements.”22 In the trowel trades the human body is inevitably offered in sacrifice, even as the “safety conditions on the job site are better than they’ve ever been. We’re constantly evolving, training our people, and updating them on safety, because the health and welfare of the trowel tradesperson is key. We want everyone to go home in the evening the same way they showed up in the morning, if not better.”23
Indeed, the spirit of betterment underscores BAC’s commitment in hosting and managing their various apprentice and training centers. [Figure 3] They are also welcoming to architectural students. Yearly, first year Architecture students from the Weitzman School of Design visit and learn from ‘masters’ and apprentices at BAC’s Northeast headquarters. Handling actual masonry materials and having firsthand appreciation for the level of mastery required of all trowel trades will only make for better designers. Albeit the designation of master mason, Stafford notes, no longer exists within the professional ranks of BAC,
“the master is kind of an unofficial thing … When someone’s been around and really knows their craft on the wall, the rest of the crew has respect for that person. They might not have on their card a stamp that says, master mason, but they are truly recognized unofficially as the master mason on the job. The hope is that that person shows that skill to the next generation of workers. That’s what an apprenticeship is, when you are on the job site, learning with a skilled tradesperson on your left, and a skilled tradesperson on your right. I was taught how to square up a building, how to spread mortar, the bond of brickwork, but I also learned so much more on those walls from those masters. I learned how to be a good union bricklayer, and I learned how to be a citizen.”
There is no better aspiration for the building industry than when its labor truly edifies. Our ability to recognize members of the trowel trades as equal partners and collaborators is important for architects. More than mere laborers, masons are active and informed participants in the value chain of building. Remembering that they imperil their lives when building our designs, remains an important task for all of us.
Dr. Franca Trubiano is Graduate Group Chair of the PhD Program in Architecture and Associate Professor at the Weitzman School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania. She received her PhD from UPenn in the History and Theory of Architecture and is a Registered Architect with l’Ordre des Architects du Québec. Since 2021, she has been co-director of Penn’s Mellon funded, Humanities + Urban + Design Initiative. Trubiano is the author of Building Theories, Architecture as the Art of Building (Routledge 2023), and co-editor of Women [Re]Build; Stories, Polemics, Futures (ORO, 2019).
Acknowledgments: This essay was supported by the Mellon Penn H+U+D initiative and the Penn PURM program which made it possible for undergraduate students Selma Ulm, Grace Busser, and Amy Metzger to participate as research assistants. I also thank industry leaders Roy Ingraffia and Matt Stafford for their generous time and willingness to be interviewed.
1. Datasets from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under the U.S. Department of Labor, first released in 2010, includes data from 1970 to the present, December 2022. The data represents employers who submit incident reports using the Accident Investigation (OSHA-170) form.
2. Ibid. This data does not distinguish between union and non-union sites.
3. Illinois Economic Policy Institute, “The Impact of Unions on Construction Worksite Health and Safety Evidence from OSHA Inspections,” November 30, 2021: i.
4. According to the Center for Construction Research and Training, “Construction firms that employ at least some union workers are more likely to perform safety best practices and undergo OSHA training than those with no union employees,” as reported in “Survey: Construction firms with union workers more likely to engage in safety best practices, training, in Safety + Health, September 19, 2018, https://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/17466-construction-firms-with-union-workers-more-likely-to-engage-in-safety-best-practices-training-survey.
5. Interview with Roy Ingraffia, National Director of Industry Development at IMI, held on-line on May 22nd, 2023.
11. Interview with Matt Stafford, Northeast Regional Representative of BAC, held on-line on June 6th, 2023.
12., 13. Ibid.
14. Datasets from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics,” https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_tec.htm; https://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.t05.htm. As noted by IMI, the seasonality of masonry craft workers should be considered when reviewing these rates.
15. Ibid., “Industry profile for Brickmasons and Blockmasons,” https://www.bls.gov/oes/2020/may/oes472021.htm#nat
16. Interview with Matt Stafford, June 6th, 2023.
20. BAC Website Press Release, https://bacweb.org/press-release/bac-applauds-new-dhs-policy-deferred-action.
22. Interview with Matt Stafford, June 6th, 2023
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