Rusty McCosh, 61, has spent 43 years in the construction industry as an electrician, concrete finisher and equipment operator, and he has seen some things that he wishes he hadn’t, such as a young co-worker who fell and was impaled on steel.
During a break one day recently at an old truss-bridge rehabilitation project in northern Virginia, McCosh, who has a salt-and-pepper beard and a mischievous smile, says that, in the late 1980s, he and his co-workers took more chances—“We did some crazy stuff,” he recalls—such as riding a medicine ball at the end of a crane line to the top of a bridge pier.
Craziness, McCosh can attest, has given way to carefulness at safety-conscious construction sites.
Spurred by tougher regulations, demanding owners, pressure from unions and their own financial self-interest, major construction employers have gotten religion on safety. More importantly, workers themselves are embracing the benefits of safe behaviors. The rate of injuries per hours worked has been falling steadily, if unevenly, since the early 1990s, and a construction worker is now only a fourth as likely to be hurt or killed on the job as in 1992, according to Dept. of Labor statistics.
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McCosh’s current employer, Worcester, Pa.-based Allan Myers, is a good example of persistent safety management. “Here, it’s almost like breathing in anything we do. It’s almost in your DNA,” says Sandra Genter, Myers’ health, safety and environmental director for its Virginia projects. The company’s arsenal of safety methods is built on modeling and valuing safe behaviors and reinforcing them on a day-to-day basis with a velvet glove, instead of a snarl or a reprimand. That civility in dealing with workers creates a fraternal togetherness that inspires workers to enforce good safety practices among themselves and pick out hazards on their own.
Andrew Morris, one of Myers’ field managers at the Virginia bridge project, is an imposing figure who has a tattoo of his daughter’s name on his arm. When dealing with unsafe behaviors, he refrains from a coarse, military-style way of communicating, he says. Caustic comments are out; calmness and camaraderie are in. “I don’t yell at people. I don’t jump down people’s throats,” he says.
The collegial construction-project team staffed with contented craftspeople is safer than brusque jobsites with shifting crews supervised by drill-sergeant foremen, say managers of some of the biggest employers. Empowered to halt work that seems unsafe and encouraged to speak up by slogans such as “If you see something, say something,” happy, fulfilled workers take fewer needless risks. Years ago, workers wouldn’t interrupt work if they saw at-risk behavior or a hazard. Today, it is common for a craftworker to do that.
Over time, McCosh and some of his colleagues have witnessed improvements that are far from standard operating procedure at smaller employers. These improvements reflect an expanded notion of what is required to work safely. Many of the methods used have been cultivated by members of the Austin-based Construction Industry Institute (CII). Their safety gospel includes 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, density of one safety staff member per 50 to 100 craftworkers, regular drug testing, and the use and measuring of active, leading-edge safety indicators.
While different combinations of these methods have been in use at industrial jobsites—where most CII members work—they now are becoming more common at the jobsites of heavy and highway contractors, such as Myers, and building contractors. It remains to be seen how far all the elements of a “workers protect workers” safety culture will penetrate construction, especially among the staff of a small business and building contractors working for developers that are not as safety-minded.
Prime contractors and construction managers—such as C.W. Driver, a Pasadena, Calif.-based general contractor and construction manager—give a sense of how complicated the coordination challenge can be. At the company’s $110-million Portola High School project in Irvine, C.W. Driver has on site only 15 staff out of a total of 220 on average. The rest are employed by about 30 different subcontractors.
“It takes daily vigilance throughout the site to keep things safe,” says Adam Underwood, an assistant superintendent at C.W. Driver. “We are in constant coordination with all the subs on an hourly basis, walking the site and not only doing our job but constantly keeping aware of where things are, what’s on the ground, making sure everyone has on their PPE [personal protective equipment] and are following protocol.”
“ If I’m in a situation where I am uncomfortable, I’ll say, ‘Hey, how can we do this safely?’” — Samantha Webster Apprentice, carpenters’ union Local 22, South Boston
Before the safety chapter in construction’s human-resources handbook can be rewritten, the industry must overcome the old, patronizing stereotype of the hardhat who looks forward only to Friday’s paycheck and the beer and cigarettes it will pay for. A more three-dimensional view is replacing it as more employers see and treat ironworkers and electricians and laborers as caring, family-conscious and committed to good work; not as hands or hardhats or cogs in a production process.
Hugh Kelleher remembers his first day on the job as a young construction apprentice in the early 1980s—it ended in the hospital. He was using a hammer drill on the concrete ceiling above him, only to get hit on the head with a big chunk of concrete.
Since then, Kelleher, who is now executive director of the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association, said construction safety has improved dramatically.
“What happened to me wasn’t unusual,” he recalled. “Back in the early 1980s, no one wore a hardhat—or it was very unusual—and no one wore protective gear.”
But things began to change in the 1990s, when both construction contractors and labor unions began to jump on the safety bandwagon.
Some of the big construction companies saw the potential to reduce costs significantly—and boost profits—by getting more aggressive on safety, hiring and training safety specialists so that safety “almost became a profit center,” says Kelleher. Unions also boosted their own efforts to protect workers, with most taking the 10-hour safety course required by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Jim Slack, president of Houston-based utility and earthwork contractor Slack & Co. Contracting Inc., says that, in his town, having a good safety record can make all the difference between getting or losing a job. The big energy companies that dominate the local construction market have sophisticated safety programs and high standards, says Slack. On some jobs, his company is required to have observers for every 20, 15 or even 10 workers, Slack notes. “It is a really, really big deal,” he says. “Even if you have a good price, a bad safety record” can cost you a job.
Construction is freer from injury than at any time since OSHA, part of the U.S. Labor Dept., was launched in 1971. Its data reveal that construction’s lost-time injury rate per 200,000 hours worked is down to 1.3, or 81%, in 2014 from 6.8 in 1989.
The rates of all recordable incidents, injuries and fatalities, which include all lost-time injuries, also are improved. From 1994 to 2014, the total recordable incident rate for all non-residential construction plummeted from about 12 per 200,000 hours worked to about 3.
Small construction employers, those with up to 49 employees, were among the worst in 1994, with a total incident rate of 12.7. But by 2014, those companies had driven their rate below 5. And all employers in all industries during the same time span improved their safety performance and better protected their workers.
Each of construction’s various specialized crafts faced a different safety challenge. Of all the trades, roofing’s incident rate was highest, with 17.5 per 200,000 hours worked, in 1994. The roofers with 250 to 999 employees had the highest rate, 25.6, in 1994. But this category has improved, too.
Data is now even more important in helping to avoid accidents and identify vulnerabilities. Most agree that the evaluation of leading and lagging indicators provides a more complete opportunity to gauge a company and its safety performance.
Michael Bellaman, chief executive of the Associated Builders and Contractors, says his association’s Safety Training Evaluation Process survey of contractors shows that companies with regularly meeting site safety committees that included client attendance reported 50% lower incident rates. Employers that track near-misses have 40% lower total recordable incident rates. Longer safety orientations during new-hire training, site-specific safety orientations and daily toolbox talks also corresponded with lower incident rates. Eventually, leading indicators will be enshrined in standards, including future revisions to the American National Standards Institute A10 construction standards and OSHA rules, but that could take years.
The role of metrics in safety performance, especially the now-ubiquitous quest for zero—whether in lost-time injuries, all recordables, all incidents or incident culture—isn’t universally acclaimed.
Bob Fitzgerald, safety-and-health principal with Southern Co., a Birmingham, Ala.-based electric utility serving the Southeast, believes a narrow focus on achieving safety numbers alone “does not meet the true goal of a safety” culture. Writing on the website of NCCER (National Center for Construction Education and Research), Fitzgerald cites the problematic definition of a “recordable.” For example, one dose of prescription pain medication qualifies as an OSHA recordable injury, as does a fractured femur.
“Ideally, injury severity should be considered because incident rates alone may not paint the clearest picture” of holistic safety performance, says Fitzgerald. “Stressing zero RIR [recordable incident rates] could cause employees and contractors to misdirect concerns” or “to intentionally or unintentionally avoid reporting incidents.”
Although jobsite safety has evolved into a multidisciplinary field that now encompasses data analysis, a broad study and understanding of human behavior has left a lasting change on the field. Energy and attention once devoted to leadership from the top now goes into grassroots safety and self-sufficiency. Properly treated and managed, workers themselves can perform much of the hazard recognition and policing of at-risk behavior that once was the province of the safety department, say contractors.
James G. Slaughter Jr., president of S&B Engineers and Constructors Ltd., a Houston-based company whose clients include power and petrochemical firms, has the advantage of being the direct employer of most crafts on his company’s projects. He says he relies heavily on his craftworkers’ care for their families to inspire their adherence to safe work practices.
“The real customer is everybody’s family, everybody’s kids. Let’s focus on being safe for the kids,” says Slaughter, a longtime CII member.
In a new report he has written, “Creating a Cul ture Where Workers Protect Workers,” Slaughter goes further. One suggestion is to pay workers adequately. Another is that foremen must refrain from references to the project’s schedule or budget status.
The crafts “don’t need to know productivity and schedule. They have no control over that,” says Slaughter. “The management and supervision are responsible for giving them all the tools and scaffolds in the right place and materials that are right for them to work with.”
If a project’s running late, “we can apply more crews or put in night-shift workers,” he says. That is preferable to workers “feeling pressure that will distract from safety.”
In addition to leadership, communication and committed management, Tony O’Dea, corporate safety director of Providence-based Gilbane Building Co., says it’s important to cultivate workers’ self-esteem. “We get to know each other. We don’t belittle and shame unsafe behaviors,” he says. “I know that the harsh approach may be typical or historical in construction, but it is also very ineffective.”
What is effective is respect, not just for what workers do but for who they are, says O’Dea. All craftworkers want to live a long life, see their families healthy and enjoy grandchildren and retirement. By promoting respect for craftworkers, along with proper training and equipment, “everyone in the pool becomes a lifeguard,” O’Dea says, meaning all the crafts will look out for themselves and their fellow crafts.
Steven Rank, executive director for safety and health for the ironworkers’ international union, welcomes employers who encourage his union’s members to speak up about unsafe conditions. As part of a zero-injury campaign commissioned by General President Eric Dean, the union has printed and distributed to their members a “See something, say something” sticker. “We don’t want you to stand and watch while others work around an unprotected floor opening” or another type of hazard, Rank says.
But Rank also reminds employers that expanded authority and respect for craftworkers requires employers to transmit critical project information to union foremen and superintendents, who are the contractors’ jobsite managers. The differences among the projects and tasks are one critical type of information. Further, a crucial task for employers is to designate individual employees as a “competent person” who has authority to stop work and make sure nothing proceeds that is unsafe.
“ The younger guys are leading the way in new safety approaches and the right way to do everything.” — Kyle Bienia Apprentice, carpenters’ union Local 108, Springfield, Mass.
Younger construction craftworkers are grasping the new safety ideas more readily. A fourth-year carpenters’ union apprentice, Kyle Bienia, 25, says the craftworkers themselves, as opposed to just the foremen or site safety staff, do a lot of the talking, tell peers when to “knock it off” and find a safer way to finish a task.
Interviewed recently at a union training center near Boston, Bienia, with a quiet sunburst of pride, pointed out, “The younger guys are leading the way in new safety approaches and the right way to do everything.” He says brand-new apprentices instructed to sheetrock the top of a wall won’t start unless the right gear is provided. “When I make do using a six-foot ladder to get up in higher spaces, they will say, ‘Hey, get a taller ladder.’ I don’t like it, but I understand the value in safety. And I’m fine with pointing out hazards.”
Training now is carried out by instructors in their 30s and 40s who are more safety-conscious, adds Dana Bean, a technical coordinator with the New England Carpenters Training Fund. He says that, the other day, “I saw some new apprentices with dust masks on. I know the instructor didn’t give them out.”
Back in Virginia at Myers’ bridge rehab project, Osmaro Lopez remembers what it was like a few years ago, when he was working for a company where the commitment to safety was weak. One day, he thought the chain he had been given to pick up and place a manhole into a trench was too weak, and he told the foreman but the foreman directed him to make the pick anyway. “Do what I say,” Lopez quotes the foreman as saying. When the chain broke and the manhole fell, no one was hurt. As Lopez now says, “I said to myself, ‘I have family—it’s not worth it,’ and I left.”
Thus, it may seem surprising that—along with proper training, equipment and leadership—a missing element in jobsite safety turns out to be something as subjective as willingness to listen and choice of language. But both convey a fundamental respect.
Morris, the field manager for Allan Myers, says he has seen more results with tact than tough talk. “If someone’s not wearing safety glasses, I say, ‘Don’t you want to see your sons tomorrow? If you get something in your eye, you can’t look at them anymore,’ ” he says. “Now, instead of me telling them to put their damn glasses on, they say, ‘All right, that’s a good point.’ ”
with Bruce Buckley, Johanna Knapschaefer, Greg Aragon, Scott Van Voorhis and Erin C. Richey