Safety culture Construction Injury prevention Construction

Staying safe in construction

As work picks up, construction firms must do their part to keep injuries down

Photo: idealistock/iStockphoto

Key points

  • According to the Arlington, VA-based Associated General Contractors of America, 71 percent of construction firms expect to add to their headcount in 2016.
  • Construction fatalities increased 18 percent from 2011 to 2014.
  • Experts advocate a strong safety culture and clear communication, and AGC of America reinforces those messages with a 13-step plan to improve construction worker safety.

Additional resource

Maybe it was nothing.

A worker at Chicago-based McHugh Construction Co. thought he might have spotted a problem with an outrigger on a crane pick. He was relatively new to the job. His bosses had encouraged him to speak up if he ever saw anything that seemed amiss. Still, it seemed like a bold move to stop work and call his superiors. What if he was wrong? What if it was nothing?

Then again, what if it was something?

The worker trusted his instincts. He made the call.

“Here’s a young kid – and I say young because they’re not old like me – but he’s not afraid to say, ‘Hey, stop the work, I need to make a call,’” recalls Jerry Flemming, vice president of risk management at McHugh. “He said, ‘Hey, is this right?’ We said, ‘Whoa – no, stop! It’s not right. Good call!’ We were patting him on the back.

“We preach that all the time: If you see something, pick up the phone. You’re not getting in trouble. We won’t think less of you.”

By speaking out, the worker might have prevented a significant incident. An outrigger had sunk on one side of the crane. If the crane operator had swung the load to the side with the faulty outrigger, a further failure could have caused the crane to tip over and lose its load.

McHugh offers an example of how a strong safety culture and open lines of communication empower workers to protect themselves and their colleagues. A consistent emphasis on safety is always important, but is even more so during periods when business is booming for many construction firms and many new workers are entering the fold.

About 71 percent of construction firms expect to increase their workforce in 2016, according to a survey from the Arlington, VA-based Associated General Contractors of America. However, the majority of those firms expect to face challenges in hiring because of a shortage of qualified workers.

New or inexperienced workers may be more vulnerable, AGC of America says. Safety professionals, foremen and other construction workers will need to be vigilant in order to reverse a recent trend of increasing fatalities in construction. After decades of declines, construction worker fatalities increased 18 percent to 874 from 738 between 2011 and 2014, according to the group.

Flemming says a collaborative approach at McHugh helps reinforce safety. One professional does not “make safety happen.” Instead, every worker at every level needs to be a part of the safety effort.

That is why Flemming was so happy with the new worker who spoke up. Since Flemming arrived at McHugh about four years ago, the organization has lowered its experience modification rate to 0.56 from 0.9, which has led to improved safety and lower costs.

“Good job on our guy’s part,” Flemming said. “It took us a good portion of the day to fix that [outrigger], but hey, good job. Most people might say, ‘Oh no, you lost half a day.’ No. Good job.”

Proven strategies

An increase in construction work creates additional scenarios in which workers could be injured or killed. But experts say a corresponding spike in injuries and fatalities does not have to be inevitable.

AGC of America recently published a comprehensive action plan – “13 Proven Steps to Improve Construction Worker Safety” – to help organizations protect their workers. A panel of judges evaluated safety programs across the nation to determine the most effective strategies for keeping workers safe.

“This isn’t an exercise in the hypothetical or theoretical,” said Brian Turmail, spokesperson for AGC of America. “These are based on programs that are working to protect workers. The firms that gave us these ideas are saving lives. We know that all of our members are interested in doing whatever they can to protect their workers, and we want to give them the resources to do it right.”

The 13 steps are:

For new employees:

Establish a buddy system for all new hires.

Hold safety orientation sessions for all new hires, including temporary workers.

Ongoing training:

Ensure managers and supervisors have the appropriate leadership and effective communication skills to instill safety culture and concepts into the workforce.

Institute two separate Pre-Task Hazard Analysis training programs.

Hold monthly “lunch and learn” safety training programs.

Require all foremen and superintendents to attend “Leadership in Safety Excellence” certification courses.

Hold targeted safety training to address all safety incidents.

Make sure all training and materials are available in languages that can be read by all members of your workforce.

Train your trainers.

Operating procedures:

Create worker task-specific “pocket safety guides” for every assigned task.

Establish craft-specific safety mentoring programs.

Issue easy-to-read badges to all workers indicating their level of training.

Authorize all workers to issue “stop work” cards to address safety risks.

Organizations of all sizes can follow the 13 steps, Turmail said. By protecting workers new and old, organizations also can boost their bottom lines and take on new projects in a busy market.

“If you think about it, everyone can get the same construction equipment,” Turmail said. “Everyone can use the same construction technology. Everyone can use the same construction software. What distinguishes one firm from the other is their people. So you better make sure that you’re protecting your people because that’s the secret sauce for your success.”

Making a connection

David Kliwinski possesses more than a quarter-century of experience in construction safety. He serves as chairman of the National Safety Council’s Construction Division in addition to his full-time role as senior director of safety, health and environment for the northeast region at Pasadena, CA-based Parsons Corp.

Kliwinski has relied on many proven strategies to protect both new and experienced workers. He has overseen mentoring programs and buddy systems, supported stop-work authority and intervention programs, and addressed language barriers by posting safety signage in multiple languages and matching up bilingual foremen and superintendents with crews they can help most.

New workers need to hear a strong safety message from day one, Kliwinski said. He listed three keys to improving safety:

  • Leadership engagement and management commitment
  • Employee ownership and involvement
  • Execution of core safety processes and safety management systems

“You get one chance to make a first impression,” Kliwinski said. “So when new employees come onsite for orientation and indoctrination, it’s crucial you make them understand that you have a culture of caring within your organization, and you make safety a personal value your company endorses.”

Engaging site management in the orientation helps to reinforce the message, Kliwinski said. He has site managers and project managers stand in front of new workers and emphasize why safety is so important, what is expected of each employee and how management will set them up to succeed.

“So let me use the word ‘sustainability,’” Kliwinski said. “It goes from orientation to field operations to ongoing work activities and upcoming work. As the project progresses, you’re constantly reinforcing safety and addressing the risks they face. You’re providing them with safe work plans to control those risks. That’s leadership’s responsibility. In a lot of employees’ experiences, they tend to get the orientations and after that the process kind of falls off.”

Across the industry, more work lies ahead. AGC of America is working with the Virginia Tech Center for Innovation in Construction Safety and Health to review the narrative behind every construction fatality from the past three years. The purpose of the review is to identify common threads among fatal incidents and provide lessons learned from those common threads to help construction firms going forward.

Turmail is optimistic about the future of construction worker safety.

“Certainly, it’s not just rhetoric to say that we are working toward a zero fatality future,” he said. “Absolutely, we can do it.

“Frankly, I think that if you talk to most people in the construction industry, there has been a seismic shift in the approach to safety. It isn’t, ‘Oh, here’s the safety guy, let’s listen to him and move on.’ It’s that they start with safety planning; they get in the middle of the project with safety planning; and they finish with safety planning. That approach is more common than it ever has been, and it will continue to be more common.”

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