Emmitt J. Nelson, P.E.
Emmitt J. Nelson, P.E.

Some contractors are stuck in the mid-1980s when it comes to measuring and setting a standard for safety performance. These contractors continue to use a zero lost-time injury rate (LTIR) as their goal. Many of my colleagues in the National Academy of Construction and the Construction Industry Institute (CII) have moved past that metric, knowing that zero lost-time injuries can no longer be termed “excellent” and that a higher measure should replace the outdated one. I’ll explain why.

In 1970, Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act. It also established OSHA, which immediately created a construction safety standard that spelled out, in Part 1904, the way companies must report and record injuries and illnesses. OSHA calculates a yearly incidence rate for injuries per 100 full-time workers by multiplying the number of injuries, illnesses or lost-workday cases by 200,000 hours—100 people employed full time, working 40 hours for 50 weeks—and dividing it by the total number of hours worked in a year.

Origins of Zero

The nominal lost-time injury rate for construction 30 years ago was nearly 6.8, but, by that time, two companies—a Texas contractor and a Pennsylvania manufacturer—had achieved, together, 6.5 million hours on multiple projects without a lost-time injury. Compared to industry averages, these companies had avoided more than 225 lost-time injuries. A new standard of excellence, which came to be known as Zero LTIR, soon was set. The obvious question was, how did those companies do that?

To find out, three years later, CII, whose members share ideas, began an extensive study of projects that achieved no lost-time injuries. CII’s Zero Accidents Research Team published its initial findings in 1993. Contractors using the 1993 research improved to a 1.16 LTIR in 2003 from an LTIR of 7.19 in 1989, with some exceeding the Zero LTIR with 1 million hours with zero recordable injuries.

The trend started in the late 1990s, when contractors on individual industrial and energy projects began to report amazing safety records for numbers of consecutive hours worked without any OSHA recordable injuries, with three reporting 4 million hours in a row.

Thirty-one known constructors have reported, since 2004, a total of 76 occasions on which companies, districts or projects logged zero recordable injuries exceeding 1 million hours or more in the U.S. With these accomplishments, the new standard of excellence for safety clearly has moved to a zero total recordable injury rate (TRIR).

The Safety Methods

The employee-focused methods used by the companies are no secret: a firm commitment by top line leaders to the task of safety, detailed safety planning at the crew level, empowerment of staff members to stop unsafe work, involvement of craftworkers in peer safety observations, one safety staff member per 50 to 100 craftworkers, regular drug testing, and the use and measuring of active, leading-edge safety indicators.

In the years since OSHA was launched, there have been major improvements in U.S. workplace safety.  Data from the U.S. Dept. of Labor reveal that construction jobsites are dramatically safer. The LTIR is down 81%, to 1.3 in 2014 from 6.8 in 1989. As a result, many lives and families have been spared suffering and loss. But this is not safe enough.

Contractors using Zero LTIR as a goal are ignoring two important categories of serious injury: an injured worker who works on restricted duty and an injured worker who gets a job transfer. Those categories account for a statistically significant (16.7%) portion of all injuries, even though they don’t cause lost-work time. In 2014, for example, “restricted duty” and “job transfer” cases were 0.6 out of a 3.6 TRIR.

Humanely speaking, there is a significant difference between zero lost-time and zero recordable injuries—and a record of zero lost-time injuries can no longer be considered “excellent.” If we care about workers and their families as we say we do, we have to set the performance standard higher than it was 30 years ago.

It is now time for the entire industry to commit to a zero recordable injury construction safety performance standard. 

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