What Keeps me up at Night: Construction Site Accidents and Prevention
By Gregory J. Offner (12/07/2009)

Probably the most disturbing news article I’ve read this year — at least in terms of disrupting a restful night’s sleep — concerned the issue of construction safety. The number of construction mishaps recorded in New York City increased more than 40 percent since 2008, according to recent reports in the New York Post.

Even more frightening, perhaps, was a statistic in the article from the city’s Department of Buildings that reveals most of the spike in accidents can be attributed to a dramatic increase in the number of incidents involving workers falling at construction sites.

Perspective

Despite the automobile industry constantly working to develop safer cars, high schools providing driver safety education and engineers striving to design safer roads, highway related fatalities continue to be the leading cause of death in the United States.

As in construction, many of the fatalities on our nation’s roads are directly attributable to drivers not being adequately prepared for the conditions they are exposed to while driving.

While contractors’ aggressive safety plans, zero-accident policies and OSHA requirements mandating standards for workplace safety have mitigated some risks in the construction workplace, work environments in the construction industry remain one of the most dangerous of any sector.

In the United States, there are on average about 1,200 fatalities per year on construction sites, which equates to about 4 fatalities per 10,000 individuals employed in the construction industry. Approximately one-third of these fatalities involve falls.

On a recent trip to the Yucatan, in Mexico, I saw black-ribbon wreaths hung on the construction fences alongside hard hats and signs in Spanish and English that read “Safety equipment must be worn at all times.” I asked a site foreman, in my very best broken Spanish, about the wreaths — wondering if they were intended as memorials to workers killed on the jobsite.

I was told it is customary for wreaths to be placed on construction fences to serve as a reminder to workers entering the jobsite to think and act safely. It is part of their accident-prevention program.

We need an accident prevention wake-up call. Perhaps it is time we started placing wreaths at construction sites to encourage smarter, safer behavior. The bereavement wreaths we have all seen on our nation’s roads and highways give me pause and force me to reflect on my driving habits.

Site Dangers

Compared to other industries, construction workers are at great risk of sustaining injuries in the course of their job. Everyday, construction site workers are exposed to multiple situations and conditions that are potentially dangerous if the workers are not adequately trained in prevention.

Deadly Business

Although, the number of construction fatalities in 2008 declined 20 percent from the 1,204 cases reported in 2007, the construction industry reported 969 of the 5,071 work-related fatalities recorded in the United States last year — the most fatalities of any industry in the private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Similarly, construction industry workers experienced 135,350 of the total 1,158,870 injuries and illnesses recorded for workers across all industries in the United States during 2007 — an incidence rate of 190 per 10,000 workers, according to the Bureau. Construction and the manufacturing, which had the highest number of cases (187,200) but the lowest incidence rate (133 per 10,000 workers), accounted for 92 percent of all injury and illness in goods-producing industries (349,450).

In comparison, trade, transport and utilities workers experienced 359,770 cases of work-related illness and injury with days away from work during 2007 — the most cases across all private industry sectors, according to the Bureau. However, this category had an incidence rate of 158 per 10,000 full-time workers compared to the rate of 190 found in construction.

Construction accidents take many forms: The most common type of accident resulting in injury or fatality — about one-third of all construction-related accidents — involves falling. Other common construction accidents include transportation-related accidents, equipment or materials impacts, equipment or structure collapses and electrocutions.

There are a myriad of things that can go awry on a construction worksite and while the causes of construction accidents vary, responses often have a common element: the question, “How did this happen?” In the final analysis, it may well be that almost all could have been prevented.

However, the fact that a majority of work takes place outdoors may be one reason construction workers are more susceptible to accidents — high winds, extreme heat or cold, precipitation and slippery conditions are a significant factor in most accidents, according to statistics.

Some industry analysts point to improved reporting and recordkeeping on the part of construction watchdog agencies and employers throughout the industry for the high accident numbers and heightened awareness surrounding accident prevention.

However, facts are stubborn things and the statistics are difficult to dispute.

Construction workers have six times more risk of being killed due to the hazardous circumstances in their workplace than other industry-related occupations. These reports and records reveal some alarming statistics: About 24 percent of accidents in the construction workplace that result in a fatality involve individuals born outside the United States, with more than 80 percent of Hispanic origin, according to the Center for Construction

Research and Training.

Perhaps it is time for industry contracts that require accident-prevention programs and practices across the board, from owners, architects and engineers to construction managers and individual workers. While it makes sound business sense to have an accident-prevention program, a safety program is inadequate without a safety plan of action, which will aid in the prevention of accidents, prevent injuries and save lives.

In addition to injuries and fatalities, construction accidents have obvious economic consequences. A worksite accident can add an estimated 6 percent to total project construction costs in construction delays and costs related to project productivity and business interruptions.

Liability

Multiple individuals and business entities can be at fault for a jobsite accident and a thorough investigation is normally conducted with investigators preparing complete accounts of the circumstances surrounding the accident to establish the events sequence and culpability. Accident investigations also seek to identify those individuals or entities liable for any damages.

In the construction industry, the list does not begin and end with the contractor and sub-contractor. Property owners or any individual directly or indirectly connected to, responsible for or complicit in an unsafe worksite condition found to be the primary cause of an injury or fatality can be held accountable.

Similarly, owners, contractors and designers may also be held liable for contributing, in a primary or secondary manner, to unsafe conditions through design, equipment or materials used in the performance of the work in which the accident occurred.

The liability buck doesn’t stop there: Product manufacturers, distributors and retailers can also be held accountable for construction worksite accidents.

From this perspective, the reinforcement and expansion of a culture of accident prevention on construction projects throughout the United States is an economic and moral absolute.

Prevention is not just about signage, slogans or incentive programs that mandate, reinforce or reward safe conduct; it’s not about wreaths on fences. Accident prevention may begin with a company ethos and the top-down efforts of management and supervisors, but at the end of the day, its success relies heavily upon the individual worker.

Perhaps it is time for every worker on every project site to be held accountable for their own safety. We have been educated to know that almost every accident can be prevented, and we spend countless amounts of time on prevention programs, posters and toolbox talks. But do we really spend enough time and resources on effective prevention education?

Maybe we start accident prevention training too late in life. Perhaps workplace safety training and accident prevention education should be part of the mandatory curriculum in our elementary and high schools — a passport, of sorts, necessary to gain entry to the adult world of employment, much like the completion of driver’s education is mandatory for unfettered access to the automobile and public highway.

Such an approach would spur aggressive communal accident prevention in the workplace and foster a cooperative culture of mutually assured safety among worker, manager and owner.

Whether building a new facility or renovating an existing building, part of our project-management strategy and execution plan should include specific requirements that establish protocols and standards for safety and accident prevention that protect both people and property.

 What keeps me up at night is the sense that we, as a society, are not doing nearly enough. In order to eliminate workplace accidents, we need to create a culture of mutual care and attention, where management and workers are instinctively concerned with the life, health and safety of themselves and their co-workers. If I could be sure that those around me on the highways or construction sites genuinely cared about my safety as much as I care about theirs, I’d likely be able to get a good night’s sleep.

Gregory J. Offner, CCM, is a vice president at AECOM in Arlington, Va. He is a member of the Correctional News Editorial Advisory Board.

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