Building Boldly: Construction Responds to New Safety and Regulatory Realities

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Building Boldly: Construction Responds to New Safety and Regulatory Realities

On the afternoon of August 24, 2020, a construction laborer employed by an electrical contractor was preparing to install a new power line between two utility poles at a Tennessee construction site. The worker threw the guide twine, used to pull the cable, toward the next pole, but it arched higher than intended and made contact with the distribution power lines. Flowing through those lines were 2,700 volts of electric current, which traveled down the guide twine to the worker, who was electrocuted. Less than half an hour later, in North Carolina, a crane inspector was preparing to carry out a monthly inspection when the crane’s moving counterweight struck the individual, who suffered blunt force traumatic injuries and was killed.

Sadly, this kind of day is often the rule rather than the exception in the construction industry, both in the U.S. and around the world, with workers routinely suffering fatal and life-altering injuries while working to build the vital infrastructure on which we all depend. The construction industry continues to be the most dangerous in which to work in America. According to OSHA, about one in five worker deaths (1,061) in the private industry in calendar year 2019 occurred in construction.

What are construction companies doing to improve the safety of their workers in the face of such stark circumstances? We will examine how they are handling compliance regulations, how new technologies such as connected worker solutions are helping, what change management initiatives are in play, the latest in training strategies and what the future of construction might look like.

Regulatory Rethink

OSHA’s Top 10 list of most frequently cited standards for 2019 includes three that specifically mention the word “construction” in their title: Ladders, Construction (No. 6), Scaffolding, General Requirements, Construction (No. 3) and Fall Protection, Construction, which came in at  No. 1, for the ninth straight year. Additionally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that fatalities in construction and extraction occupations increased by six percent in 2019 from the previous year.

Greg Sizemore, vice president of health, safety, environment and workforce development at Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), reminds us that OSHA standards are “not to be considered as the highball in safety performance, but the bare minimum.” According to Sizemore, a construction company that puts up industry-leading safety performance numbers is one that has a safety-focused culture in place, and that culture starts right at the top with the CEO.

“[Employees] will see and recognize whether that leader is walking the walk and talking the talk,” Sizemore said. “So, as a CEO, when you go out to a job site, are you wearing the same PPE that you're requiring your employees to wear? Or are you still in your loafers and your khakis and your Ray-Bans, as opposed to steel-toed boots, a hard hat and safety glasses?”

If it’s in place at those corporate office heights, a culture of safety will conceivably cascade through lower management ranks and onto the actual construction sites.

While the commonly cited OSHA standards are not likely to be reduced in frequency any time soon, Sizemore does expect to see a growing emphasis on substance abuse policies.

“As an industry, we cannot allow substances to take over,” Sizemore said. “If your son or daughter is rigging the load below a tower crane, and that operator happens to be under the influence of an illegal substance as they're pulling the levers and lifting that load, you'd want to know that that operator is in 100-percent tip-top capacity to do their job.”

In the United Kingdom, many observers expect the tragic Grenfell Tower fire of 2017 to continue to have an effect on future regulation directions set by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the U.K. government agency that oversees workplace health and safety.

“This will include improvements in building standards, governance, fire safety provisions and maintenance and more. The impacts of this will be very far-reaching,” says the head of health and safety at a U.K.-based manufacturer of clay- and concrete-based building materials.

Training is Key

The social distancing requirements necessitated by the pandemic have made in-person training considerably more difficult, if not impossible, for many construction companies. And even if some traditionally face-to-face training exercises can conceivably be ported over to computers into a virtual alternative, that option is not a practical one for many firms.

“Any courses that require a practical element have been a challenge if close contact working is required,” admits the health and safety professional at the U.K. company. “Several courses have been put off until face-to-face becomes viable again. The main reason is that the thought of a two-week health and safety course being delivered virtually is mind-numbing to most people.”

Training to maintain continuous professional development, which is normally practice-based on a site across multiple companies, such as that for the company’s quarry managers, has also been affected, he added. “It has been difficult to come up with alternative ways of learning for this type of information.” Some shorter courses, he said, have been delivered online with some success. “That’s something that we would not have considered before the pandemic.”

For global construction companies, training is a complicated affair even without a pandemic. “We are a very high-turnover industry, with a lot of market volatility,” said a representative of a global provider of engineering and construction solutions to the oil and gas industry. “So, with that comes a lot of challenges in training our workforce. We have people that are working all over the world, and our workforce is diverse. We've got people from all cultures and backgrounds, so navigating that can be challenging, along with the rules, regulations and requirements associated with each location that we work in.”

Whether the training is virtual, in-person, pandemic-affected or not, ABC’s Sizemore stressed the importance of verification of skills learned once the exercise is completed.

“The thought of someone simply being chained to a desk or staring at a monitor for 30 minutes on a particular topic, and that information being something that they will immediately take onto the job, is fairy dust,” Sizemore said.

Therefore, there has to be a means to justify that individual’s competence in the task for which they are training. This can take the form of a simple Q and A from the supervisor. “It doesn’t have to be an inquisition. It’s saying, ‘Since you now know how to inspect a grinder before you use it, or since you learned what personal protective equipment you need to have on to use this tool, show me before you start to do it.’”

Root Causes, Connected Workers and Technology

Fortunately, a plethora of new technologies have become available to help increase safety on construction sites. Many firms are adopting wearables—garments or other objects containing electronic sensors that can be worn just like any other typical work garb, such as safety vests, gloves or protective eyewear.

Research provides compelling evidence that wearables can make a difference. A 2019 study looking into their effectiveness evaluated 251 NIOSH Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) reports and concluded that the active hazard in 73 of them (29 percent) could have been prevented with a wearable device. The report also looked at 29 cases from 2018 in the OSHA archives and revealed that wearables could have played a role in preventing one-third of them.

While wearables help to mitigate immediate dangers to construction workers, various forms of health and safety software systems are helping to create a safer future. The representative for the oil and gas provider said his company is utilizing Root Cause Analysis (RCA) software to better understand its health and safety risks. RCA analyzes incidents to discover root causes and address the source of the problem to prevent their re-occurrence.

“We knew what the problems were, but having a system showed us that trend and demonstrated it. It brings a lot of value,” the representative said. “It makes sure that people are aware of the problem and brings it more to the forefront.”

Although the stereotypical construction scene is a picture of hustle and bustle with many workers carrying out their responsibilities within close proximity of one another, the reality is that many building tasks are performed by lone workers in remote locations. Traditionally, a fall or other mishap in these situations could easily turn deadly with no one around to help a laborer in distress.

A wide range of connected worker technology has become available in recent years to help mitigate this risk by maintaining a line of communication between lone workers and their construction teams. ABC’s Sizemore noted that new technologies can be confusing and intimidating for contractors and management in smaller construction firms. Others simply don’t have a lot of time to research their benefits and move toward a purchase and implementation.

“Whether it be drones, or tracking, or tracing, those are technologies that, in the day-to-day fight of just doing a project, many contractors in small shops just don't have time to fit it in,” Sizemore said.

To help primarily small and mid-size shops, ABC has launched its Tech Alliance program, a group of 13 construction technology companies that collaborate on tech resources for the association, including a beta testing/free technology program and educational webinars.

Construction’s Health and Safety Horizon

Just like many of the edifices it produces, the construction industry itself reflects the ever-changing societies and cultures in which it exists. As the world evolves, companies will have to evolve along with it. How well they manage this change will determine how successful they are at taking their safety efforts to new levels.

At the U.K. company, change management today is strongly linked with sustainability. “It’s driven by our customers and shareholders alike,” says the company’s head of safety and health. “As this is a renewed focus, outputs so far are not quantifiable, but our objectives stretch to 2030 on this topic.” Technology in the form of a change management software tool has been the nexus for change management efforts at the oil and gas firm. “Prior to that, we had a paper-based tool, but this provides a way to analyze the risk associated with change, to engage the stakeholders and to monitor and measure the implementation of that change,” said the company representative.

In Sizemore’s view, the traditional focus on a construction worker’s physical safety will be widened in the coming years to include what ABC refers to as Total Human Health. This concept considers the entire well-being of an employee, encompassing not only physical safety but also mental health, addressing issues such as anxiety, depression and suicide.

The pandemic may, in the long run, prove to be a spur to action around this issue, he notes. “It has created an increased risk for depression and anxiety. The isolation of social distancing has had a significant impact on people, and we need to take this as an opportunity to improve our industry and expand our safety dedication.”

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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