Moving toward year’s end, there is no better time to reflect on how physically demanding our business can be. The routine rigors on most jobsites can be daunting even for the youngest and fittest workers. But more of the bodies beneath those hardhats are getting older. And our industry’s overall approach to health and safety needs to get smarter.

Despite efforts to draw younger recruits into the industry, the construction work force continues to age. There already were nearly 1 million construction workers aged 55 or older in 2001. Older workers mean greater national health problems because construction employs roughly 5% of the U.S. work force.

To date, our safety efforts have tended to focus on the most prevalent causes of death, namely falls, electrocution, struck-by and caught-in-between. Receiving less attention is sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) resulting from coronary artery disease and heart attacks. About 61 million Americans have cardiovascular disease, resulting in about one million deaths per year, one-third of which are attributable to SCA.

We know how to save most SCA victims. One solution is cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Properly done, it keeps blood circulating and buys time while help is on the way. That help is an electrical "jump start" for the heart, which can be provided by a defibrillator. But delay diminishes survivability.

Statistics show that immediate treatment of a witnessed cardiac arrest with a defibrillator gives the victim better than a 90% survival rate. For every minute that elapses without defibrillation, nearly 10% fewer survive, and after 10 minutes survival rates flat line.

The Construction Safety Council fully supports the placement of automated external defibrillators (AEDs) in every contractor’s office and jobsite. Priced between $700 and $3,500, these units are a small investment with almost guaranteed rewards, even if it’s only peace of mind.

Lifesaving Results

But the benefits of AEDs usually are much more tangible. For instance, Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports recently installed AEDs throughout their facilities so that SCA sufferers would never be more than a minute away from such a device. In the first 10 months of the trial, 14 cardiac arrests occurred, and nine of the victims survived.

We see no reason why such success can’t be transferred to construction. Among the responses to a 2002 online survey conducted by the International Risk Management Institute was one from Mary Ellen Sacchetti, vice president and safety director of Plaza Construction, New York City:

"When I joined Plaza Construction [in 1998] as the company safety director, I was determined to get a defibrillator program in use at our office. The first year an AED was purchased, only a few employees were interested....Everything changed...when a laborer was in the office and collapsed with sudden cardiac arrest. We saved a life that day and this one use stimulated all of our employees to get involved. We now have 95 employees trained in American Red Cross CPR with the AED training."

Sacchetti is still enthusiastic about AEDs. "We now have two units in our main office, and three on different jobsites," she says.

As a former licensed emergency medical technician in the days before AEDs, I have often reflected on how many more lives we could have saved had we had an on-board unit.

Today, you don’t have to be an EMT to use an AED. Once applied to a victim, a computer inside the unit analyzes the problem and determines whether a shock is appropriate. If so, a recorded voice warns all to stand "clear" while electricity is administered. It then gives step-by-step instructions to the operator. Training is minimal and often provided by equipment vendors.

The concern most often raised by contractors about the use of AEDs is that of liability. But case law consistently has held that Good Samaritan statutes shield the use of AEDs. So, what are you waiting for? The life you save could very well be your own.

Tom Broderick is executive director of the Chicago-based nonprofit
Construction Safety Council. A member of OSHA's Advisory
Committeeon Construction Safety and Health, he can be reached at or 1-800-552-7744, Ext. 207.