Facing Reality

The biggest safety problems aren't heat and moving vehicles, but miscommunication, poor housekeeping, and a wrongheaded approach.

WHAT are the biggest safety problems on summer construction sites? Noise, moving vehicles, heat, and falls from height come readily to mind. But some of the most common hazards are more subtle: Communication problems, poor housekeeping, and a wrongheaded safety approach are factors.

When Britain's Health and Safety Executive commissioned a study two years ago of factors causing construction incidents, the findings of the resulting Research Report 156 were interesting and also relevant to U.S. construction firms. It cited poor communication within work teams because of distance between co-workers or high levels of background noise. Poor housekeeping and site layouts not designed with safety in mind contributed to 49 percent of the studied accidents. No risk assessment had been done in many cases; even where an assessment was performed, it was likely to be superficial and unlikely to have prevented the incident. Likewise, accident investigation was frequently superficial and did little to improve safety afterwards. PPE was relied on habitually as a substitute for engineering controls, the researchers found.

Although bad weather is often cited as a negative safety factor for construction, the research found little evidence to support this. They also said construction firms should be encouraged to benchmark their safety practices against other industries' and that the excuse that construction is "different" in terms of safety challenges does not stand up to scrutiny.

Ensuring Effective Communication
Communications can be a huge problem on a construction site. Crew members may not share the same native language, which raises barriers to effective communication; experienced trades workers may balk when told to approach a task differently than what they are used to doing.

Here are suggestions for delivering your safety message consistently and effectively:

  • Walk your site several times each day, and vary those times. Walk through it regularly and bring members of your safety committee along. Examine the walking and working surfaces, scaffolding, scrap piles, electrical cords, ladders, signage, site entrances, noise levels, and how tools and machines are being used and are being stored when not in use.
  • Ask questions. Is safe work ingrained in the workers? Watch the crews work and talk with them to learn what they really value. Make sure each one understands site safety policies and is familiar with potential hazards at the site. Encourage all employees to take pride in a clean work area and to report problems or needed corrections so quick action can be taken.
  • Follow up. When you find a problem or a worker reports one, act on it. Following up cements in their minds your commitment to their safe performance. If all you're doing is cajoling them, without backing your words when necessary, you'll lose them.

  • Is safe work ingrained in the workers? Watch the crews work and talk with them to learn what they really value.
  • Have the right tools ready when they're needed. If your employees are expected to clean up a spill, for example, have the tools and supplies for cleanup and disposal available where they can get them easily. If heat stress is a concern, make sure cold water is available in a shaded spot on site.
  • Use safer alternatives where appropriate. Where possible, replace ladders with stairs, have fall protection systems built in at the design phase, or provide mobile lifts and other carrying assistance for oversized or heavy items.

Top Achievers Get the Message
Construction companies that excel in safety understand the value of effective communication. Several of the 2005 AGC/Willis Construction Safety Excellence Award Winners who were announced last March at the annual convention of the Associated General Contractors of America made communications and training focal points of their efforts, for example.

F & V Construction of Chicago, a winner in the Specialty Division (100,001-300,000 work hours), said it trains employees on scaffolding, fall protection, first aid and CPR/AEDs, Hazard Communication, back safety, and many other topics. Stacy and Witbeck, Inc, of Alameda, Calif., a winner in the heavy division (300,001-700,000 hours), said it involves field personnel, craft workers, and foremen in on-site inspections through a weekly rotation of Safety Officer of the Week. The "Safety Stand-Down Process" at General Construction Company of Poulsbo, Wash. (heavy division, 700,001-1 million hours)


If all you're doing is cajoling them, without backing your words when necessary, you'll lose them.
shuts down its projects for two to three hours at least twice a year to review recent safety performance thoroughly. Ashmore Bros. Inc. of Greer, S.C. (highway division, 300,001-700,000 hours), said its training begins during the hiring stage and continues throughout an employee's career. All classes are taught in English and Spanish, and additional classes are offered in both languages so workers can communicate better on site.

Construction firms associated with the National Center for Construction Education and Research (www.nccer.org) and Associated Builders and Contractors share the same commitment. Examples include Teton Industrial Construction Inc. of Atlanta, which won an ABC 2004 National Safety Excellence Award and uses an annual, multi-day quality, safety, and training seminar that is focused on teamwork, safety, and quality. Caddell Construction Co. Inc. of Montgomery, Ala., a 2004 National Safety Excellence Award winner and NCCER contributor, has an OSHA total frequency rate of 1.3, far below its peers, and has worked nearly 5 million manhours without a lost time injury.


Accident Types

Activities Involved

Slips, falls (all levels)

21 %

Actual task activity

52 %

Struck by

18 %

Movement/transit

29 %

Handling, lifting, carrying

17 %

Cleanup/maintenance

12 %

Materials/tools

12 %

Set-up

7 %

Struck against fixed object

8 %

Total

100%

Moving machinery

5 %

   

Trapped by collapse/overturn

5 %

   

Dangerous act

4 %

   

Electrical contact/discharge

2 %

   

Other

8 %

   

Total

100 %

   

SOURCE: "Causal Factors in Construction Accidents," Research Report 156, U.K. Health and Safety Executive, 2003




Checklist: Preventing Construction Falls

This checklist was prepared by Linda F. Johnson, a former technical editor of Occupational Health & Safety. It is for evaluation purposes only and is not a substitute for a comprehensive safety program or audit.

Yes

No

Is management actively committed to providing a safe work site?

Yes

No

Is the site surveyed regularly for changing conditions that may create a tripping or slipping hazard?

Yes

No

Are spills cleaned up immediately?

Yes

No

Are walkways kept clear and free of combustible materials?

Yes

No

Is stored material stable and secure from tipping or falling over?

Yes

No

Are workers' tools and toolboxes properly located and stored? Are all stray tools gathered and stored properly at the end of each shift?

Yes

No

Is a safe clearance for material handling equipment provided through aisles and doorways?

Yes

No

Are openings to outside walls adequately barricaded and labeled before work begins in the area?

Yes

No

Are employees prohibited from sitting on ledges of openings to outside walls?

Yes

No

Are all floor openings identified with appropriate signage and covered or barricaded prior to workers' exposure in the area?

Yes

No

Are floor openings guarded by a standard railing or is a person posted on guard at all times when employees are exposed?

Yes

No

Have all employees been advised about how to report unsafe conditions at the site? Do they know whom to contact in such cases?

Yes

No

Are reported items or unsafe conditions documented?

Yes

No

Do employees wear appropriate safety footwear for the floor conditions?

Yes

No

Is damaged or defective footwear replaced or repaired?

Yes

No

Is the level of lighting adequate for safe employee movement and for the work being performed?

Yes

No

Are temporary hand railings checked for protruding nails and splinters?

Yes

No

Are floors and walkways evaluated for evenness? Are changes in elevation, such as joints, labeled?

Yes

No

Are covers or guardrails in place and marked around open trenches, pits, tanks, or other surface interruptions?

Yes

No

Are plans in place for fencing and barricading the work site from public use and vehicular traffic? Is the perimeter wide enough to protect outsiders from debris and potential fall hazards?

Yes

No

Do workers for your company or subcontractors who use scaffolding utilize a competent person for its set-up, use, and removal?

Yes

No

Are scrap bins monitored for spillover that could create a slip/fall hazard?

Yes

No

Are adequate cleanup supplies and absorbents available for spills?

Yes

No

Do employees know where to find first aid supplies on the site?

Yes

No

Are emergency numbers posted as required?

This article appeared in the August 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the August 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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