One of the ongoing challenges the construction industry faces is how to keep employees safe. Out of the private industry workers who died in the 2017 calendar year, nearly 21% were in construction, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. However, as attendees at the Associated General Contractors of America’s 100th annual conference learned, many in the industry are taking active steps to break the safety status quo to curtail fatalities at job sites.
Changing safety perception
While some construction companies are proactively leading efforts to bolster employee safety, some companies need an extra push. During a session on Monday, Mike Haller, director of safety at The Gallegos Corporation, and Nicole Washam, risk control advisor at IMA Inc., noted that some companies are content to rely on “lagging indicators,” such as OSHA logs and injury frequency, to assess their commitment to safety. As a result, there is often a disconnect between construction executives and ground-level employees about the state of a company’s safety practices.
One way firms can bridge the perception gap is by administering a safety perception survey among employees. However, some leaders are hesitant to do so because of cost, a fear of results, overconfidence in their existing programs and the need to accommodate a multilingual workforce, Haller and Washam said. But while surveys can shine a light on weakness, soliciting candid responses can foster open communication and make employees feel valued, Haller and Washam said.
On many construction job sites, it is common to see contractors carrying out joint hazard analyses or pre-task planning through daily safety planning conversations. However, a lot of those conversations typically entail a team leader reading required language off a piece of paper to disengaged employees who are later asked to sign a document acknowledging their understanding of what’s expected of them. If someone gets hurt, those signed papers conveniently resurface. To Barry Nelson, CEO and founder of FactorLab, that practice sends the wrong message to employees.
One way contractors can buck the trend is by creating daily videos where team leaders interact with workers to provide alerts about various hazards and highlight best practices. FactorLab has created a mobile app called SmartTagIt that allows teams to post those videos to give project managers and superintendents a real-time view of a project’s workflow. By simplifying the process of making construction crews transparent and accountable through daily, interactive communication, the platform essentially forces them to change their behaviors and become more mindful of their work, Nelson says. That, in turn, results in increased productivity and fewer accidents. The caveat, of course, is that without a sustained commitment to the effort, “you’re doomed,” Nelson said. Some ways crews can ensure the approach succeeds include finding a team that uses the platform particularly well and having others emulate it, rotating communication duty or turning the daily process into a game of some kind.
One company that has successfully deployed SmartTagIt is Structure Tone Southwest. According to Vice President of Safety Dan Saddler, the company has reduced its injury rate by 28% and increased its productivity from 2.5 million to 3.5 million man-hours worked since 2017. The company also has recognized over more than 200 field leaders recognized for safety thanks to the tool.
From hard hats to helmets
One of the most ubiquitous items used throughout the construction industry is the hard hat. But with traumatic brain injuries accounting for 25% of all construction fatalities from 2003 to 2010, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, some general contractors are now pursuing helmets instead of traditional hard hats.
Seth Randall, a division safety director at Clark Construction, said the need to make the switch was clear to the company after a January 2016 incident where an employee working at the site of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s rail extension to Washington Dulles International Airport fell off a trailer and suffered a traumatic brain injury. At first, the company attempted to improve its hard hats by adding a chinstrap to them. But while a chinstrap can help secure the hard hat of a worker bending over to pick something up in windy conditions, it’s virtually useless in the event of a fall.
Randall said the company eventually “upped the ante” by adopting a style of top-of-the-line helmet with an inner shell made of expanded polystyrene that absorbs energy from impacts. Ironically, the helmet was one Randall and others mocked when an employee wore it at the construction site of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2014. But when a third party subjected the helmet to force transmission, apex penetration and impact energy attenuation tests, it became clear Clark had found its solution.
Randall admitted, though, that many hurdles exist to widespread adoption, including managing cost and compliance, and getting companies to stray from their existing head protection practices. Furthermore, the industry has grown somewhat complacent with current standards from the American National Standards Institute, and new ones are needed to require the use of advanced helmets.
Evan Milberg is SmartBrief’s infrastructure editor. Prior to joining SmartBrief in July 2018, he served as the communications coordinator for the American Composites Manufacturers Association for three years.