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Safety and Health Conversations: An Interview with Dr. Christine Branche – Part Two

If you missed part one of Scott Schneider’s interview with Dr. Christine Branche, the Principal Associate Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Director of its Office of Construction Safety and Health, you can read it here. The second half of their discussion covers stopping falls in construction and how research at NIOSH can help improve occupational safety and health.

[The interview below was edited to fit Lifelines.]

Scott: How do you see the annual Stop Construction Falls campaign changing over the next few years? The program has gotten a lot of recognition, yet the number of construction falls went up in 2016, even though the rate stayed the same.

Christine: I think falls were up because there were more construction workers working. One change is that we’re trying to involve insurance companies more. Still, we have to keep our focus on the small contractor. We shouldn’t abandon that effort just because it’s difficult.

Scott: What is compelling the small contractor? Is it not knowing the risks or not having access to interventions? Should the focus be return on investment?

Christine: It’s a little of both. People are in a rush and think the time it takes to train their workers to do it the right way isn’t necessary given the risks. But it’s more expensive not to follow these precautions. There’s an expense and a risk, which is why I think insurance companies are a very important avenue to get information to small contractors. We need to get across the message that a fall doesn’t have to happen to you before you understand how important it is.

Scott: We like to think people will read NIOSH’s research findings and change their practices. Sometimes that works, like when NIOSH showed back belts weren’t effective for injury prevention. Other times it takes an OSHA standard to change behavior. What is the role of research in safety and health?

Christine: The back belt issue was a sweet spot. Here was something touted as beneficial and used in lots of industries and even at home. Fortunately, NIOSH research filled that gap quickly without an OSHA regulation. Dr. Howard, the Director of NIOSH, is very focused on research to practice, but we can’t communicate our research findings to OSHA alone. We have a responsibility to workers, and NIOSH must communicate its findings in a way they can understand. We can’t talk to them like we would in some scientific journal. We’re not trying to transform NIOSH researchers into communications experts, but we’re using research to inform and energize our partners and stakeholders, like we have with the National Construction Falls Prevention campaign.

Scott: Can you give an example of how the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA) Construction Sector Council, which has so many different partners, has influenced the NORA agenda and how NIOSH has responded to their input?

Christine: For the second decade of NORA, we narrowed our focus to work together on two topics. One was the construction falls campaign, which has been very successful and led to the National Stand Down each year. The other topic was creating a pilot credit for green building construction under LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for worker safety and health. So far, the problem hasn’t been introducing the credit – it’s been getting designers and architects to know the credit is there and use it.

Scott: Over the past few years, I’ve tried to raise awareness that companies may think they have a great safety program, but employees don’t always see it that way. What are the most effective ways companies can close that gap and improve their safety culture?

Christine: Company leaders have to be willing to be vulnerable enough to ask their employees these questions. To use an analogy, you have to trust the people who are packing your parachute. There’s a reason and order to how the parachute is loaded. If workers think you don’t care about them, you’re taking a big risk pulling that cord and hoping it deploys when it’s supposed to. When companies ask questions and then employees see changes based on what they say, that is a really important part of safety culture and safety climate.

Scott: Musculoskeletal injuries and hearing loss are chronic issues in construction, but it’s difficult to get some companies interested in prevention because of construction’s changing workforce. How do we raise the profile of these issues?

Christine: The number of workers in construction is smaller now than it used to be. If you want the best craftsmanship and the best people, you have to protect them. You may not have the same worker on two or three jobs in a row, but the chances of you eventually getting that same person again is pretty high. We always have to opt for making an investment in keeping workers healthy. At NIOSH we try to exploit every opportunity to use our expertise to help the American worker. It’s always an uphill climb. Our aim is to work ourselves out of these jobs. I’m glad to be part of the climb.

[Nick Fox]

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