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Safety & Health Conversations: An Interview with Chris Trahan Cain

Chris Trahan Cain is the Executive Director of CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training, as well as the Safety and Health Director for North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU). Scott Schneider sat down with Chris for a discussion about the future of sustainability, technology and worker health in the construction industry.

Scott: Can you elaborate on your role at NABTU?

Chris: Through the NABTU Safety and Health Committee, I work with our affiliates to find common issues where we would benefit from working together. When we find those issues, I work to make sure the committee has technical support in safety and health, and also figure out how to amplify those issues. We’re fortunate to have Walter Jones as the chair of the committee, because as a certified industrial hygienist, he’s very strong on the technical side.

Scott: Much of what the committee does is reactive, such as developing responses to actions taken by OSHA. Do you see opportunities where the committee could also be proactive?

Chris: One issue that has come up this year is the disparity in occupational injuries and illnesses among older workers. CPWR has done a lot of work in this area to identify trends and report on how unions and employers are addressing this. We identified options that exist within the affiliates for aging construction workers who may be suffering from long-term occupational illnesses and injuries like musculoskeletal disorders or hearing loss. Options range from training programs to prepare members to be safety and health representatives to inside or shop jobs. Some unions are even training members on how to open their own businesses as union contractors.

Scott: How can we get companies to think in terms of sustainability and investing in keeping their workers healthy over the long term? It’s difficult when the focus remains on short-term or job-to-job profitability.

Chris: That’s the structure of our industry and changing that takes time and effort. The current shortage of skilled workers in some areas and sectors is leading to changes. Employers don’t want workers to retire at 55 because they won’t have enough experienced workers left to run their business. We are seeing more recognition in this economy of the need for sustainability.

Scott: There is a major focus in the trades to use safety and health as an organizing tool. I know CPWR and the Institute for Work and Health has done some research on the advantages of having a unionized workplace. How do you see this issue and approach?

Chris: The results were pretty clear that there was a higher adoption of safety and health policies and programs among contractors who employ union members. Union training programs invest well over a billion dollars a year and there is a massive safety and health training infrastructure through CPWR and building trades unions like LIUNA. There are 1600 training facilities in the U.S., which employ well over 5,000 occupational safety and health trainers. This is an incredible resource that is impossible to duplicate outside the organized construction industry.

Scott: What trends do you see in the culture of the construction industry, either among workers or contractors?

Chris: I see change happening at a pretty rapid pace, and it’s being driven by leadership in the industry. The leadership recognizes that the diversity and environment in the construction industry has to change and it’s already changing. There is a concerted effort in every union to attract and recruit women into apprenticeship programs. Leadership understands that the barriers that have traditionally been in place for women in the industry need to be broken down. Those same efforts are also being done to increase diversity in the industry. There’s also change being driven by the opioid crisis. Leaders in all of the building trades unions see that opioids are disproportionately affecting construction workers and their families. The concepts of employer-provided paid sick leave and disability leave were not talked about in the construction industry a decade ago, but they are being discussed now.

Scott: What about trends in technology? What disruption or challenges do they pose for construction?

Chris: We’ve had many discussions about artificial intelligence and its impact on workers. It could have a dramatic impact on the number of workers needed, and it’s happening very fast. It’s going to hit some trades more than others, but overall, it’s going to be very disruptive. It ranges from robots to drones to the computerized sensing of people, equipment and materials. At CPWR, we are trying to track what is happening with exoskeletons, radio frequency technology and drone use. There have been some research ideas on using technology that may be harmful for workers, which we haven’t funded. There is even 3D printing technology being used for bridges and homes. It’s staggering how quickly the technology is changing. It will change how work is done and several unions have been preparing for this and training on it. For example, LIUNA is using virtual reality in training. There are also so many questions about how the technology will reduce or increase stressors on the body. Much of the technology is too expensive to employ right now, but that is changing too. It is something we have to watch as a community.

[Nick Fox]

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