While the hazards faced in construction are in some ways similar to those in other industries, there are unique issues that safety professionals and contractors must consider.
The implementation of a safety and health management system is much more challenging in the construction industry. These challenges can include: low bid processes; transient workforces; environmental conditions because of outdoor working situations; multi-employer worksites; and an always-changing jobsite…just to name a few.
While many elements go into creating a positive safety culture in construction, here are five important issues for safety professionals and contractors to consider when addressing worker safety.
1. Educate the Workforce
For workers to perform safely, they must understand the hazards and risks they face on the job site. Given the transient workforce in the construction industry, certain workers may not always be as familiar with the work being done nor the hazards involved.
That’s why contractors and safety professionals must ensure that the workers participating on a project have the right skill set and knowledge to complete their tasks safely. Contractors and/or safety professionals need to ensure that everyone is aware of common hazards in construction, such as the OSHA "focus four" of fall hazards, caught-in or between hazards, struck-by hazards and electrocution hazards, and how to prevent those types of incidents.
They must also recognize that conditions change throughout the day, leading to new hazards that may not have been present when the work started.
"Construction is a constant flux of change," says Kim Lindgren, CHST, and OSHA lead instructor and curriculum developer for construction and maritime. "When you show up at a job site in the morning, it’s a different site an hour later or at the end of the day." Therefore, contractors and workers need to monitor the job site continuously and observe any changes arise.
Toolbox talks are one tactic contractors can employ to educate workers. These provide workers 10- to 15-minute informational sessions before a shift that addresses the hazards associated with the tasks they will be performing and how those hazards can be mitigated to help workers perform their tasks safely.
2. Look Out for Worker Well-Being
Along with the hazards that workers face on the job site, other dangers have emerged as serious issues in the construction industry. A 2015 study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that the construction and excavation industries had the highest suicide rate among males of all major occupational groups. Furthermore, a 2018 study from the Midwest Economic Policy Institute found that nearly 15 percent of construction workers suffer from substance abuse.
Protecting the safety and health of construction workers goes beyond mitigating hazards on the job site. Measures such as employee assistance programs provide a confidential forum for workers to discuss personal issues such as substance abuse or depression so they can get the help they need.
3. Understand the Project
When undertaking any project, all involved need a comprehensive understanding of the work to be performed, any requirements that work must meet and who is responsible for what tasks. This gains added importance in the construction industry, since many sites have contractors from multiple employers working side by side, and often dozens of workers performing different tasks for various periods of time.
Given these circumstances, contractors, project managers and safety professionals need to be aware of any regulatory requirements governing the work being performed. They also must understand the range of different groups on their job site at any given time (e.g., electricians, iron workers, plumbers, painters) and what is expected of them in terms of project safety.
"Contractors must be aware of the safety and health hazards associated with the work they will be performing or managing," Lindgren says. "They must also be diligent in identifying site-specific requirements, be aware of and understand the various authorities having jurisdiction and perform work not just to attempt to meet OSHA standards, but to adhere to a best practice approach."
4. Remember the Hierarchy of Controls
In some cases on construction sites, personal protective equipment (PPE) may be used as the first line of defense in protecting workers from hazards. Lindgren stresses the need for contractors, safety professionals and workers to remember that the hierarchy of controls begins with elimination or substitution of hazards. These methods provide the greatest mitigation of hazards in order to protect workers and, therefore, should be pursued before moving further down the hierarchy to PPE.
"It’s mind-boggling how many people think that PPE is always the answer," she says. "PPE should be your last resort."
For situations in which PPE is necessary, contractors and safety professionals should ensure that workers are trained on every component of the equipment in order to use it properly.
"If you’re handing a harness or a lanyard to a worker, you have to think about whether that individual is trained on every component of that system," Lindgren says.
5. Employ Effective Safety Management
Many businesses have a safety management system in place, whether they refer to it that way or not. It is reflected in how executives think about safety, the level of training provided to workers and the actions of those workers as they complete their tasks. To truly foster continuous improvement in occupational safety and health, organizations need to understand what leads to safety and health success.
As one example, OSHA provides guidelines for effective safety and health program management that include the following elements:
- Commitment and leadership from management
- Worker participation
- Hazard identification and assessment
- Hazard prevention and control
- Education and training
- Program improvement
Lindgren encourages contractors and safety professionals to examine each of these elements when exploring how they can improve safety and health programs to determine what may be lacking or in need of improvement.
While OSHA provides these guidelines and many other resources for effective safety management, Lindgren emphasizes that OSHA compliance should not be the reason that contractors be proactive about safety. "You should be professing to your people that you care about them," she says. "That’s why we operate safely - not because OSHA says so."
Tying these issues together, Lindgren emphasizes the need to plan for worker safety, and highlights the role that safety professionals play in that planning.
"Workers need the mental as well as physical tools to do their jobs safely," she says. "We must provide them with the proper tools to fit with the company’s safety and health management system. Whether we have two employees or 2,000, we have an obligation to protect them."
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