As construction work increases, so do dangers
Firms focus on training, education to protect new workers under tight deadlines
Johnny Meador started working in construction when he was 15 years old.
Forty-five years later, Meador shakes his head at the risks he and his former co-workers used to take. Safety was not exactly a priority back then.
“Anybody in their late 50s or 60s or 70s can tell you how it was,” said Meador, 60, who now works as a safety manager for Charlotte, NC-based Hall Contracting Corp. “Some of the stuff we did when we were young – which the owners had you doing – was insane. If you went through those recessions that we had, you were just lucky to have a job. When you look back, things could have been a lot, lot safer.”
By nearly every measure, construction work is safer today than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. However, serious dangers remain. The most recent findings from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 937 construction workers were killed in 2015. That marked the most fatalities of any industry sector – almost three times worse than in manufacturing – and the deadliest year for construction since 2008. Construction-related fatalities accounted for 21.4 percent of all worker fatalities in 2015.
Think about it in these terms: Every week in 2015, 18 construction workers went to work and did not return home. They left behind spouses, children, parents and siblings. And none of their heartache needed to happen.
“Yes, we think we’ve made tremendous improvements in safety,” said Brian Turmail, spokesperson for the Arlington, VA-based Associated General Contractors of America. “But we need to be constantly vigilant. There is a sensation, it’s like a rubber band, and you’ve got to constantly pull on it or it will snap back. We want to make sure that everyone is constantly pulling on that band.”
That sentiment holds true for any construction season, but especially when business is booming. A recent report from AGC stated that construction employment has reached its highest level since 2008. Nearly 3 out of 4 construction firms say they plan to add to their workforce in 2017. Hourly earnings have climbed as well. Firms are optimistic that a busy year will continue as the federal government vows to boost infrastructure.
The heightened demand has made it more difficult for firms to find experienced, qualified workers. Forced to look elsewhere, several firms have turned to inexperienced workers, many of whom are fresh out of school or have switched careers from other industries.
Training and education are essential to protecting inexperienced workers, safety professionals say.
“You’re getting real estate agents that are applying for construction jobs these days,” said Tab Evans, who works with Meador as a safety manager at Hall Contracting. “I want the guy that’s going to ask questions. My old saying is, nobody is going to chastise you over asking a question. Nobody here is going to make you feel worthless or put you down for asking a question. We try not to have that around here.”
‘Construction Focus Four’
When Evans conducts safety training for new workers, he concentrates much of his instruction on OSHA’s “Construction Focus Four” hazards:
- Caught-in or caught-between
“Most of your accidents are one of the four,” Evans said. “That’s why it’s important to catch them early and train, train, train.”
Data from BLS shows that the “Focus Four” hazards were responsible for 602 construction worker fatalities in 2015, including:
- 364 fatalities from falls
- 90 fatalities from a struck-by incident
- 81 fatalities from electrocution
- 67 fatalities from being caught in or between an object
Julie Ann Carter, director of environmental, health and safety at Gulfport, MS-based Roy Anderson Corp., believes more can be done to save lives and prevent injuries in the construction industry.
“I think the outreach that needs to happen with the small- to medium-size contractors is critical, and especially with the trade contractors and the subcontractors,” Carter said. “If they are a small trade contractor working for a larger general contractor, they can take advantage of the resources that the [general contractor] can provide. But if they are out there on their own, I think that’s where we’ve always had a challenge in safety – reaching that small contractor and letting them know these are the tools available to you. I don’t think the safety world in general has found a way to tap into that.
“A smaller contractor might hear the name ‘OSHA’ and they think, ‘Here comes a violation, here comes a fine.’ That’s what they know. They don’t know that there is material out there that is available to them. They say, ‘Well, I can’t afford to send my guys to training, I can’t afford to bring in the trainer, I can’t afford to do this, I can’t afford to do that.’ There are options. They just don’t know about them.”
Training extends far beyond new-hire orientations and opening lectures. At Hall Contracting, experienced workers are paired with new hires as part of a mentoring system.
In the field, new workers are able to watch and learn as construction veterans show and explain why certain safety precautions are necessary. New workers also might feel comfortable asking questions of their peers instead of speaking up at a more formal training seminar.
“We use a buddy system here,” Evans said. “They have somebody with them so they are getting on-the-job training as well. We’re not just going to turn somebody loose that hasn’t been exposed to it.”
Carter relies on the same type of mentoring arrangement at Roy Anderson. She said the program also serves as a refresher activity for the more experienced worker as he or she models safe behavior.
“In construction, there’s more of a sense of freedom and a sense of family,” Carter said. “I think once you get into it, it’s more of a community in itself than it is a 9-to-5 job. Circling back to the ‘Focus Four’ hazards, if somebody sees someone else doing something that is not quite right, they will actually speak out and say, ‘Hey, tie off to this instead of that,’ or ‘Let’s think about this before you do it.’”
Roy Anderson conducts a program called “Thumbs Up for Safety,” which encourages and rewards workers who identify hazards on jobsites. The program includes a “Countdown to Safety”:
- Take “5” and look around.
- Focus on the top “4” construction killers.
- Ask yourself “3” simple questions: What am I about to do? How can it hurt me or someone else? What am I going to do to prevent it?
- Remember “2” keep your mind on task, eyes on hands.
- It only takes “1” – you – to make a difference.
“You have to actively engage them,” Carter said. “You have to do more than just say, ‘Here are the rules. Follow them.’ Safety alone can’t keep them safe. They have to keep themselves and each other safe. It’s all about active engagement.”
Keeping workers safe provides an added benefit to construction firms: Workers who are safe and healthy will not miss shifts and will not need to be replaced by another crop of new, inexperienced candidates.
“For any number of reasons – moral, financial, recruiting – safety is the top priority for our member firms,” Turmail said. “Our firms talk about the fact that safety used to be, ‘Oh, OK, let’s talk about safety.’ Now, safety is the first, middle and last thing they talk about at every jobsite.
“But let’s not kid ourselves. There is a tremendous amount of work left to be done. None of us is going to be happy until we get to zero fatalities.”
’Focus Four’ resources from OSHA
OSHA provides resources for firms to train workers about the “Construction Focus Four” hazards. Instruction guides, small-group activities, toolbox talks and more are available for free download at www.osha.gov/dte/outreach/construction/focus_four.