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What’s Next for Construction Safety and Health?

Construction safety and health has come a long way since I started doing this work 36 years ago. Over the past dozen years, fatality rates have fallen for construction laborers in both general industry and construction, even as the overall number of workplace fatalities has increased. Injury rates in construction are now similar to those in retail work – an achievement that seemed out of reach 15 years ago.

Despite this progress, more than 930 construction workers were killed on the job in 2015 and almost 80,000 suffered serious injuries. In light of this, how can we move forward and keep making improvements? Here’s a look at what has worked and what could be done better.

New Strategies at OSHA

The slow pace of OSHA’s standards setting is no secret and there are too few OSHA inspectors for all the workplaces where they are needed. Aware of these shortcomings, OSHA has tried several innovative strategies in the past few years.

  • Creating a “severe violators” program to go after employers who violate the law with impunity and issuing press releases to increase public awareness about companies that jeopardize worker safety
  • Requiring electronic reporting (starting in 2017) and injury logs be posted online to create an incentive for employers to improve safety
  • Using smartphone apps on heat stress, ladder safety and noise to increase outreach to workers

All of these initiatives take advantage of the power of technology to involve more than just OSHA and the employer on worker safety issues. OSHA could take this further by creating an app or online tool for workers to report unsafe conditions. Technology continues to change rapidly and sharing this or other information in real time could further improve worker safety.

The regulatory approach to improving worker safety and health is still an important one. But for OSHA to continue having the greatest positive impact, it must find more ways to go beyond the normal legislative model.

Public Concerns About Worker Health

In the past, tying worker safety to public health concerns has been a successful strategy to improve conditions for workers. Asbestos didn’t become a national issue until it was seen as a threat to children in schools. Community demands for information about what chemicals were being used at nearby plants resulted in the passage of state Right-to-Know laws, which eventually led to OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard.

We should be looking for other ways to make the plight of workers more relevant and important to the public. One potential area is construction noise, which affects many communities. New York City passed a noise ordinance which has helped push the use of quieter equipment. Another possible area for improvement is backovers by construction equipment. Concerns from consumer groups about children being backed over in their driveways resulted in a federal requirement for backup cameras on all cars and trucks by 2018. Construction and large general industry vehicles could benefit from this same technology.

Owner Involvement and Safety Planning

Owners have a tremendous impact on construction projects. Owners who choose to pre-qualify bidders and set a floor for safety performance are finding that the result is safer projects that are more likely to be completed on time. There are other ways to tie this concept of “best value contracting” into projects to prevent even more injuries.

Many jobs are already being planned using building information modeling (BIM) software, which helps reduce waste, improve collaboration and make planning easier. Incorporating safety planning into this process has the potential to reduce the time pressure felt by workers, which often ends up leading to injuries.

Prevention through design, which promotes simple design changes like raising the height of a parapet so it serves as fall protection, adds little to the cost of a project and results in benefits throughout the life of the building. Making use of these principles in the planning process can reduce delays, strengthen the bottom line and most importantly, improve safety for workers.

Making Safety More Visible and Personal

When regulations and enforcement don’t reach construction contractors, progress will depend on making them see the value of safety in other ways. Many contractors with excellent safety programs say their commitment to safety dates back to a serious injury or fatality that occurred on their jobsite. Capturing and telling these personal stories can help both employers and workers understand that, yes, it can happen to them. The key is making contractors realize they have a safety problem so they are motivated to seek out solutions.

Safety Climate

Many contractors are starting to realize that safety is more than just setting rules and enforcing them. Proactive contractors are working to improve safety climate on their sites by surveying workers and management to identify gaps about how safety is perceived on site.

Workers need to be actively engaged in safety activities, from participation in safety committees and inspections to incident investigations and problem solving teams. If workers are afraid to speak up and report hazards, someone will get hurt. Unionized sites have a particular advantage here because even though workers have anti-retaliation rights under OSHA law, in practice, the collective bargaining agreement is a much more effective mechanism for protection.

Rewarding workers for speaking up and participating is one of the best ways to build trust between workers and management and improve safety climate on the jobsite. Look for this to become a more important topic in the coming years as more companies move beyond standard safety metrics and lagging indicators.

Keeping Skilled Workers on the Job

The construction industry is already experiencing a shortage of skilled workers and it is likely to continue for some time. This is due to several factors: more projects creating greater demand for labor, workers retiring from the trades at an early age and a lack of younger workers to take their place.

Labor and management will need to continue to work together to solve these issues. Improving pay and benefits through unionization should help attract younger workers, but improving safety in construction could be an important part of the solution. Chronic injuries such as back problems and illnesses like COPD currently force many experienced construction laborers to retire early. Extending the careers of workers benefits them physically and financially and also provides a more skilled, stable workforce for construction contractors. One way to achieve this goal is through jobsite changes that help construction laborers “work smarter, not harder.” This issue is likely to grow in importance as long as the skilled worker shortage continues.

A Bright Future

We have made tremendous progress over the past few decades in construction safety and health, but we still have a long way to go. Making significant improvements will require involvement from many different groups, changes in the bidding and planning phases, tying occupational health to public health and strengthening worker participation and rights through increased unionization. Together, we can continue to make enormous progress and save thousands of lives from injury and preventable disease.

[Scott Schneider]

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