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Improving Safety and Health for Small Contractors

Statistics show that over 90 percent of construction contractors in the U.S. have 10 or fewer employees. We also know these employees are at higher risk for occupational injuries than employees at larger firms. What factors place them at higher risk and what can be done about it?

Three major barriers have been identified: time, money and risk perception.

Time: Small contractors are often under incredible time pressure. During these times, safety is often seen as a cause of unnecessary delays.

Money: Small contractors work on very thin margins. Safety is often seen as an expense they don’t have resources for, not as part of the bottom line. Normally, there is no designated safety professional. Instead one person (probably the owner or supervisor) wears many hats in addition to safety, and they may have little safety training or safety-specific expertise.

Risk Perception: Small companies have fewer incidents because they have fewer employees and hours worked. Getting by without a serious accident or injury leads companies to think they are unlikely to experience an injury in the future. They think “It can’t happen to me” but the truth is it does happen, just not as often among a small group of employees.

Any plan to improve safety and health for small contractors should start with these three barriers. Fortunately, there are solutions that can address each of these issues and improve conditions for workers at small firms.

Saving Time: The time pressure of construction is not going away and taking shortcuts when the job falls behind schedule invariably compromises safety. So the trick is to build safety into the planning stages of a project. Planning for safety should be no different than planning out how much drywall will be needed for a given job. For example, if you need a 20 ft. ladder to access work safely, don’t show up with a 10 ft. ladder – that either delays the project or forces workers to use equipment that isn’t suited for the job.

Building safety into the planning stages of a job reduces time pressure and makes the entire job run more smoothly. But it means safety must also be built into the bid process. Although federal agencies must now consider safety before awarding contracts, the pressure to award contracts to the lowest bid is very real elsewhere in the industry.

Saving Money: Many safety improvements are seen as costing money or time, but there’s a good argument to be made that safety saves both money and time. There is an upfront cost for replacing unsafe equipment or buying new equipment, but even a single serious injury can be far more costly. Workers are any company’s biggest asset and worker injuries can become their biggest cost. For example, the average cost of a workers’ compensation claim for back injury – a common injury in all industries, but especially in construction – is between $40,000 and $80,000.

Another example is proper materials handling, which is often seen as a burden on contractors. But studies have shown that changing tasks to reduce sprains and strains actually increases productivity as well. Making this kind of research more widely available and suggesting easy-to-implement solutions could help convince skeptical contractors that safety is an investment, not a cost.

Changing Perception: Because most small companies have not experienced a serious injury or fatality, they operate on the assumption that risks are low and their company is safe. Until this misperception changes, they are unlikely to be motivated to invest in safety or training.

The best motivator to change this attitude may be personal stories from peers. Owners who have had the experience of dealing with a fatality or serious injury to one of their employees often talk about how that moment changes their perspective on safety. Hearing from someone they can relate to about how injuries impact people personally and professionally can be enough to make other contractors think “that could have been me.”

Distributing easy-to-understand materials can help educate employers on OSHA requirements and best practices to keep employees safe. The LHSFNA provides outreach to signatory contractors on a variety of construction-related safety and health topics through its online Publications Catalogue and the Fund’s webinar series.

For more information on how to identify and overcome the challenges facing small contractors, see the OSHA Alliance Program Construction Roundtable white paper titled “Proposed Strategies for the Occupational Safety and Health Community to More Effectively Reach Small Contractors in Residential Construction.”

[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety & Health.]

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