Among the most visible gauges of economic prosperity is the number of construction jobs and projects underway over a given period of time. Judging by the most recent economic indicators published by the American Institute of Architects, Washington, D.C., in August, there’s good news for the U.S. economy: Architectural services have increased 5.3 percent and construction employment has shown growth of 2.8 percent since last year. Likewise, the Washington-based Associated Builders and Contractors reported in June that its Construction Backlog Indicator (CBI) rose to nine months during the first quarter of 2017, up 8.1 percent from the fourth quarter of 2016. (CBI is an economic indicator that reflects the amount of construction work under contract but not yet completed. It is measured in months with a lengthening backlog, implying expanding demand for construction services.)
However, while new construction and renovation projects are a boon to the economy, an adverse trend exists in tandem with commercial real-estate development that building owners and facility managers need to remain vigilant about: workplace injuries and fatalities. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Washington, nearly 6.5 million people work at approximately 252,000 construction sites across the nation on any given day, and the fatal injury rate for the construction industry has the highest national average across all industries.
“Construction is traditionally a high-hazard industry in which workers may be exposed to serious hazards on a daily basis, often because the conditions of the job are constantly changing,” an OSHA spokesperson told retrofit.
In spite of increased safety measures, training and safety equipment on the job site, the number of construction worker fatalities has been on the rise in recent years, increasing 18 percent from 738 to 874 between 2011 and 2014, according to the Arlington, Va.-based Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America. Incidentally, in 2016 OSHA raised its maximum penalties for safety violations by 78 percent with a maximum fine for serious violations increasing from $7,000 to $12,471 per violation and willful or repeated violations jumping from $70,000 to $124,709. (Note: The U.S. Department of Labor, Washington, adjusted civil penalties for all its agencies to account for inflation as directed by Congress.)
“Although we’ve been able to reduce some of the minor injuries that might result in medical aid, first aid or treatment in a medical clinic, the serious injuries, disabling injuries, and fatalities have plateaued and even increased a little bit and that’s an alarming factor,” explains David Kliwinski, CSP, vice president of Safety, Health & Environment for Parsons Corp.,
Philadelphia, and former chairman of the National Safety Council’s Construction Division, Itasca, Ill.
The leading causes of these life-threatening injuries and deaths are represented by OSHA’s “Focus Four Hazards”—falls, electrical, struck-by and caught-between—which are consistently identified as the top reasons for construction-related injuries. “Injuries link the four hazards to more than half of construction-related fatalities,” an OSHA spokesman explained.
Kevin Cannon, senior director of Safety & Health Services at AGC, adds: “When you talk about construction, it’s been consistent for many years: falls are the leading cause of death—working from ladders, scaffolds, roofs, working at heights that you can imagine are dangerous. If the proper equipment is not utilized or the proper process not followed, accidents are bound to happen, and falls have been leading the injuries.”
Factors Contributing to Safety Lapses
There are a wide variety of reasons for and circumstances that can contribute to unsafe conditions on a job site. As such, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single aspect of workplace safety that can be addressed to prevent serious or fatal injuries from occurring. However, looking at the bigger picture can assist in formulating a comprehensive approach to safety that can help save lives.
“There’s a lot of conjecture around why [serious injuries are] occurring,” Kliwinski observes. “Is it because the workforce is changing to a less-mature, skill/craft labor workforce? I think that’s part of it.”
Cannon agrees it’s difficult to isolate one particular factor that is more significant than another when it comes to ensuring worker safety. However, he suggests training is “very important. You have to not only train your workers to be able to identify the hazard and be aware of it, but also you have to train them on what to do to protect themselves from that particular hazard. And I think having that knowledge is the best way to prevent any type of injury or fatality.”