There’s no two ways about it: relative to other professions, construction is a dangerous business. In a 2002 survey of the most dangerous U.S. occupations, construction laborer came in ninth, with a rate of 27.7 fatalities per 100,000. Of the top 15 on-the-job fatal instances, at least seven could occur at a typical building company: electrocution, falls from ladders, falls from roofs, highway collisions, fires/explosions, struck by falling/flying object, and struck by vehicle.
Those are just the deaths, the most extreme examples of jobsite safety lapses. A countless number of man-hours are lost each year by minor injuries such as broken bones, muscle strains, cuts, and bruises. While not as severe as a fatal accident, these injuries are a drain on productivity and crew morale.
The solution is obvious — more, and better, attention to safety. The method, especially in the less governed rural building industry, is not as clear, although more and more builders are spending the time, money, and effort needed to develop a comprehensive safety program for their employees.
What is clear is that a proper safety plan for a building company starts with a simple underlying value: employee health and well-being. Forget the fear of retribution from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — safety starts with the goal of returning each worker home to his or her family after the workday is complete.
“As a builder and a researcher, my No. 1 concern above all else is employee safety,” says University of Wisconsin professor Dave Bohnhoff, who recently experimented with fall protection systems as part of a building research project. “If I can’t erect buildings without endangering employees, I need to seriously question why I’m in the building business.”
That’s where it all starts. Construction accidents are not just statistics, and lost man-hours are not just lines in an Excel document. These are hard-working people who deserve to work in an environment that will not put them in harm’s way.
“It’s inherent for all companies to value their employees. It’s the heart and soul of the company, and to protect those employees is the life’s blood of the company, for both the family and the well being of the company itself,” says OSHA safety specialist Steve Medlock. “That should be the forefront of everybody’s issues, but we don’t want somebody’s day-to-day operations to lose sight of that. The loss of any worker, just for a short period of time, can not only dramatically affect a company psychologically, but the bottom line as well. It can cause an increase in workers’ comp rates, a loss of productivity to the job itself, and incur the cost of retraining people to fill in that task.
“When all those things are considered, the value of safety is important to the well-being of a company, both as it deals with the human resources of employee, but also the financial well-being.”
Setting the mood
Where to start? At the root of any successful safety program is getting workers to buy in, to lead them to take ownership of the program. “We tell them it’s our goal to make sure they go home safe at night, and hopefully they have the same interest,” says FBi Buildings’ Stan Virkler. “We want them to know we’re there to protect them, we want them to know we’re on their side.”
To that end, FBi involves its workers in developing jobsite safety procedures, identifying hazards and methods. The company also has a safety committee to discuss ongoing safety issues and concerns. “They know better than I do,” says Virkler.
Lester Buildings emphasizes safety with monthly meetings, jobsite visits, toolbox talks, and incentive programs. “By taking the time to teach them safety, we show them we want to protect them,” says Cathy Telecky. “We had a couple serious falls in a span of a couple years, and you start to see the effect that has on the morale of other employees. It really drives home how important it is that we protect our workers.”
These basic safety tenets are proactive and well-intentioned. In practice, the fear of getting caught, and punished, by OSHA is just as strong a motivator for safety compliance. Although the industry is moving more into suburban areas and building larger commercial structures, and OSHA pledges more and more jobsite inspections every year (its goal for 2003 was nearly 38,000), OSHA does not have enough field agents to thoroughly canvass the entire spectrum of rural building. Still, the threat of six-figure fines and associated legal fees should also serve as a powerful motivator for proper jobsite safety.
This all sounds good, but setting a climate of jobsite safety is often easier said than done. A number of common obstacles stand in the way of any good construction safety program, and few builders are immune.
Of primary concern are the mentalities common in many workers, both young and old. The challenge with younger workers is their feeling of invincibility. Mike Miller, construction operations manager for Wisconsin builder Brickl Bros., says the ages of 18 through 25 are often most difficult for young men because of this mindset.
“People that are younger and haven’t experienced first-hand seeing or hearing what has happened to other people will tend to think that can’t happen to them,” says Telecky.
On the other hand, more seasoned workers often present a different dilemma, one that can be best described as “we’ve done it this way for years.” A wily veteran who has been climbing up trusses for 20 years without incident will be hard-pressed to take the time to tie off, even if he’s aware his first accident may be his last.
“Carpenters out there who are 50, 60 years old, they’ve all had a measurable fall or two,” says Bohnhoff. “They’ll tell you how they fell off a ladder here or a roof there, and that it just made them a little more anxious and cautious for the few days or weeks following the fall. While I think it’s a good thing our brains don’t dwell on all the bad things that happen to us, it’s not a good thing when our brains don’t comprehend the lessons that gravity is trying to teach us.”
To that end, Telecky says Lester reviews and talks about accidents with employees, and has employees who have been injured come back and talk about the importance of safety. One especially powerful speaker was a worker who had fallen and been out of the field for several months — he entered the room in a wheelchair.
Virkler says neither the attitude of invincibility nor that of problem-free experience are as pervasive among his company as they used to be. A larger obstacle these days is one of comfort — fall protection equipment like harnesses or lanyards aren’t comfortable, safety glasses lead to headaches, etc.
Another obstacle to creating a comprehensive safety program is cost. Large machinery like manlifts, rough terrain forklifts, and mobile scaffolds require a significant investment, but personal safety equipment like stanchions, brackets, and lifelines isn’t cheap either. Bohnhoff notes that safety is not the only factor to consider when purchasing some of this equipment.
“When people look closely at certain equipment, especially some mobile scaffolds, they’ve said, ‘You know something? We can definitely justify purchasing this piece of equipment, not only because it’ll improve safety, but it’ll save us a tremendous amount of labor,’” he says.
Where the risks are
While far from the dangers faced by a soldier, stunt man, or trapeze artist, a construction laborer works in an environment fraught with potential harm. Even with low-rise building typical in rural construction, fall protection is the top concern (see story, page 30). Falls from trusses or columns are indeed dangerous, and can result in bone breaks, concussions, or death. Medlock says after falls, the two other categories in which most construction fatalities fall are electrocution and struck-bys.
The most common opportunity for electrical hazards is with the use of electric tools and extension cords. These should be approved for construction work, undamaged, in proper working condition, and not spliced. Overhead and underground power lines should be identified and avoided. Grounding is also important; any outlets being used should have ground-fault circuit interrupters.
Struck-by conditions are harder to regulate. Hardhats, proper shoes and shirts, and safety glasses are last lines of defense against impact and laceration, but communication, both with jobsite traffic and construction procedures, is vital in avoiding impact injuries.
On a smaller scale, hand protection is vital in a line of work where hands are arguably the most important tool. Telecky says hand injuries are the most frequent at Lester. To address the issue the company makes hand protection a portion of every monthly safety meeting, and offers employees a special rate on cut-resistant gloves.
Virkler says vehicle safety follows fall protection as a top safety priority at FBi. The company is working on equipping its vehicles with “How am I driving?” 800 numbers, to give drivers accountability. “That’s a tough one to prevent,” he says. “How do you train your people to drive safe? How do you train your own kids to drive safe? That’s a tough one.”
Other safety issues concern proper use of ladders and scaffolding, cranes, tools, and lifts. Consult www.osha.gov for a complete list of OSHA jobsite safety regulations.
One safety issue that may go overlooked is ergonomics, which may not be as obvious a hazard as others, but can adversely affect health and productivity nonetheless. With all the lifting, contorting, and compromising positions that take place at a jobsite, strains are not uncommon. At Lester, Craig Loger has brought in nurses specializing in ergonomics to give stretching and proper lifting demonstrations, which are reinforced every day.
FBi requires that materials 75 pounds or heavier be lifted by at least two people or a machine. The company also provides back belts, and pays for half of chiropractor visits. “We’ve put a lot of effort into that,” says Virkler.
Getting it done
So the hazards have been identified, procedures created with input from workers, and equipment purchased. Now what? Implementing and sustaining a successful safety program is an ongoing process, with new procedures added and discipline handed down when necessary.
At FBi, Virkler and company have created a list of major safety issues, and from those constructed safety guidelines. Supervisors work with crew managers to set expectations, which are conveyed to workers. Safety is not treated as a separate program within the company, it is treated as part of the entire building process.
Random inspections are conducted to ensure these procedures are being followed, and FBi’s chain of discipline is crystal clear: a written warning for the first offense, three-day suspension for the second, termination for the third.
Incentive systems are gaining popularity as a method for promoting jobsite safety. At Burnham Lumber in Rewey, Wis., Ron Austin implemented a Safety Bingo game that rewards employees for staying accident-free. Every day a crew works without accident, workers put a number on their bingo cards, with a prize of $5 for a bingo, $75 for a blackout. “It serves two purposes: it’s a reminder of safety every day, and it makes the foreman call in every day to get the number,” says Austin.
Burnham also ties salary incentives to safety practices. If, on a jobsite visit, a worker is observed wearing a hardhat, he is eligible for a 25 cents-per-hour bonus. The reverse is also true: employees seen not wearing a hardhat are docked 25 cents per hour. “When we first started, some guys were getting deducts, but everybody’s getting the extra quarter by now,” says Austin.
At Brickl Bros., where Miller helped institute a “zero tolerance” safety policy, a dry erase board in the main office notes how many consecutive days the company has been accident-free. Workers are rewarded with cash for meeting quarterly accident-free standards.
Lester, which like many companies conducts a comprehensive new employee safety training program, runs a four-part system. The first part rewards groups for each month’s performance, based on how many safe work hours were completed. The second part is based on individual safe work hours, which can be lost for either a recordable lost time injury, or a safety violation. The third is based on a crew’s quarterly safe work practices, with a free breakfast on the company the reward. The final portion is based on yearly safety performance.
No matter how it’s executed, the identification, composition, implementation, and sustaining of a comprehensive safety program is vital for any rural builder. Making these programs a top priority for everyone from salespeople to office managers to crewmen is essential in helping make the industry a safer, more efficient place to work.
“The real key is getting it in their hearts,” says Virkler.