Managing Major Risk Factors

Having safe standards of work is a two-pronged affair: rules that work preemptively and reactive rules that show workers how to act in the face of a calamity.

The construction industry expanded at an exponential rate in recent years, not only in countries such as the United States, but also in emerging mega-economies such as China. The UAE experienced a construction boom in the past few decades. But as the global economy faces recession, construction has become stunted in many areas around the world.

No matter what the pace of construction or where the construction is being carried out, however, construction safety should always remain on people's minds. Construction is one of the most dangerous types of land-based work in the United States. Being involved in the industry could pose serious risks to your health, if not to your life. Safety compliance during construction projects is in the limelight today, and accidents are more publicized. Questions are asked about whether or not we are doing enough to protect our workers, how to comply and keep schedules and profi ts on track, and whether the safety rules in place are effective.

Construction workers encounter numerous hazards: They might fall from a height, be electrocuted, be hit by falling objects or struck by machines, or be involved in a heavy vehicle accident. Chemicals on site (solvents, for example), asbestos, cement dust, and noise can be harmful. The reality is that construction workers face all of the above and more on a day-to-day basis. As the list of potential injuries increases, the face of safety measures and procedures is also changing.

Myriad safety rules have been developed and implemented by governments and individual construction companies. European Union directives chalk out the basics about rules concerning workers. In the United States, OSHA sets and enforces the health and safety standards for workplaces. The problem with construction safety is not that the risks are not known or there are no rules governing safety — rather, it is very difficult to control hazards and risks in a constantly changing work environment.

The Ideal vs. the Achievable

As a business owner, you must understand that complete safety is simply not achievable. Every situation can go wrong, no matter how much proofi ng has been done, and things that were not hazards sometimes can immediately turn into hazards.

What is acceptable one day may become unacceptable the next. The best we can do is to have a general set of rules applying to any manual labor situation. In addition to that, more extensive rules can also be chalked out, depending on the specific type of construction involved (road, skyscraper, underground, etc.).

Safety is a concept to be practiced, but it also can be seen simply as a result of certain other activities and practices. Whatever the case, we must understand the limitations of safety rules. Not that rules in place should be done away with; some forego safety with the excuse that lots of rules merely inhibit performance and stunt the effi - ciency of the construction process. It must be understood that, in the long run, safety, productivity, and quality are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, productivity can be increased dramatically if safety rules are adhered to and workers know they are well protected. Firms have learned that following national safety regulations as well as implementing some of their own actually profi ts them, in the sense that customers will be attracted to hire them because they are not dangerous.

Having safe standards of work is a two-pronged affair. One must have rules that work preemptively — that is, rules in place to prevent disturbances to the workplace in the form of accidents. The second type of rules should be reactive — that is, rules or directives in place that aid construction workers to know how to act in the face of a calamity. It needs to be recognized that safety is also a state of mind. Workers (and, for that matter, anyone at a construction site) always should be on their toes.

Any rule is worth nothing if someone thinks he is above them. When safety is departmentalized, most subconsciously begin to think it is somebody else's job, not theirs. Knowing this, it shouldn't matter whether you're the site manager or the carpenter--if you're on site, you always must wear a hard hat. It's not cumbersome, it's just safety.

Inspections and Checklists

Construction safety constantly needs to be reviewed. Some are under the mistaken impression that site checks help improve safety. Site checks are merely a first step toward improving safety. Via site checks, potential problems and hazards can be identified. The critical stage is developing ways to check these problems. Even more important than having an updated, comprehensive system of rules is enforcing these rules as much as is humanly possible. It happens too often that inspections are carried, reports are submitted and fi led, but then nothing is done based on what was found.

Construction workers obviously know when they've cut themselves, when they've fallen etc. But few workers realize their health is harmed not only by immediate physical injuries, but also by long-term, slowly damaging stressors such as noise. The noise of on-site heavy machinery causes no immediate pain or trauma and leaves no scars or bruises; the damage it does is recognized at a stage when it may be too late to do anything about it.

Industry-wide, threats such as these have become silently prevalent. As many as 60 percent of construction workers may suffer from hearing damage. Some workers are reluctant to wear any protective aid, saying it inhibits their ability to communicate with co-workers, hear warning signals, etc. Pneumatic chip hammers, jackhammers, concrete joint cutters, chainsaws, impact wrenches, pile drivers, bulldozers, sandblasters, and compressed air blowers are machines used frequently on construction sites. All of them produce noises of levels that are potentially damaging. You should require workers to wear hearing protection for these exposures.

Most construction companies have a checklist for safety. This checklist may include many things: clearly posting numbers of nearby hospitals, having clear exit paths from the site, using only approved and clearly labeled canisters to hold fl ammable or dangerous chemicals, grounding all fault circuit interrupters, ensuring employees wear appropriate personal protective equipment, providing each employee with a Material Safety Data Sheet for each chemical in use on the site, equipping all stairs will handrails.

You should ensure that all construction workers and laborers have taken at least first aid courses and some basic training courses on safety. Smoking on site should be discouraged, and smoking in undesignated areas should be actively prohibited.

Construction of high-rise buildings is very dangerous. Indeed, the task becomes more dangerous as the height of the building rises. Every company operates on a schedule, but unpredictable events such as bad weather can disrupt schedules and push deadlines. Safety of everyone on site must take precedence over trying to get the job done quickly.

Even minor winds can affect loads being lifted to high heights. When such projects are in populated areas, the safety of people in the vicinity must be kept in mind, just as the safety of construction workers on the site is a priority.

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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