After years of successful work in limiting injuries, big industrial owners and contractors are recognizing the need to shift more effort to the stubbornly persistent problem of fatalities. The systems and practices that have dramatically cut injuries over the years, and that were expected to have the same impact on less frequent, more deadly mishaps, have failed to work as anticipated.

That fact bothers members of the Construction Industry Institute, the research consortium for many of the world’s biggest industrial companies and their engineers and contractors. Amid the histograms, best practices and benchmarks discussed at the consortium’s annual conference in National Harbor, Md., Aug. 2-4, several speakers expressed frustration with the uptick of fatalities among CII’s member companies, and with a roughly parallel increase in the entire industry.

“Perhaps we have been resting on our laurels,” Gregg Slintak, director of safety, health and fire prevention for Con Edison, the New York City-based electricity, steam and gas utility, told the CII members. He had served as chairman of a safety-research team that created a risk-measurement tool geared to high-impact, low-frequency events—the deadliest mishaps. Based on what’s currently available, Slintak said, the committee’s tool may be “a big step into the leading space and a first bite out of the apple for predictive safety” for these types of accidents.

Bechtel's Grim Assessment

His comments resonated with other sentiments at the conference urging improvements to industry practices and outcomes. Brendan Bechtel, president and chief operating officer of the big engineering and construction-management firm controlled by his family, built a presentation at the conference around a grim trifecta: 98% of projects experience cost overruns or delays, 80% is the average cost increase, and 20 months is the average schedule slippage. Bechtel said the cost-increase figure is based on megaprojects and that the statistics demonstrate the possibility of dire consequences if improvements aren’t made.

“Our house is on fire,” Bechtel told the more than 500 people in the audience. “If we don’t address [the various problems], we may cease to exist as an industry and … customers will cease to have confidence that we can deliver.”

The resolve about fatalities fits the spirit of self-criticism.

Data from the U.S. Dept. of Labor reveal that construction job sites over recent decades have been made dramatically safer and that the lost time injury rate is down 81%, from 6.8 in 1989 to 1.3 in 2014. Companies using various CII-­advocated techniques—a firm safety commitment by top-line leaders, 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—have done even better.

Stubborn Rate of Fatalities

But that heartening transformation has failed to materialize when it comes to fatalities. Over the five years from 2005 to 2010, years when business slowed, construction employers and safety regulators managed to drive down the U.S. construction fatality total from 1,184 to 780. From 2011 to 2014, the deaths ticked upward, to 802, as the economy improved. CII’s members recorded only 15 fatalities in 2013, but the next year the total hit 30, and then in 2015, the latest year for which data is available, it was 42.

Craig Martin, the former CEO of Jacobs Engineering, said that more of an effort must be made to understand risk-taking behaviors that could actually increase when employees feel confident that they are protected by sturdy safety systems and procedures. “I hear a lot of talk that if we just get people to do the right thing, the right way, every time, we won’t have any injuries.”

“I’m not suggesting not having good processes and procedures and tools and personal protective equipment is a good idea,” said Martin. “I think all this may be necessary. I’m just not convinced that it’s sufficient.”

One CII member, employed by a major industrial company, said his firm will be devoting fewer resources to individual-incident root-cause analysis and placing more emphasis on high-severity events.

Slintak and his research teammates studied low-frequency, high-energy accidents and identified 16 common precursors for predictive potential. Each precursor was basically a tip-off of poor work planning, pressure to hurry or vulnerability to deadly high impact or energy. Examples of the individual factors include crew members being unaware of standard operating procedure, the presence of fatigue and a congested workspace.

Looking for Accident Precursor Clues

Careful observation of the job site and frank discussions with field staff and supervisors should reveal much of what needs to be evaluated. One of the research committee’s principal investigators, Matthew Hallowell, a construction engineering professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, says assessments of the precursors work best when carried out by people with at least three to five years of construction-industry experience.

In some of the most intriguing conference sessions, participants were asked to watch a video interview with a job-site foreman who was preparing a crew to demolish a tank containment system. A specialty crane subcontractor has just arrived on site to remove the confinement tank from the existing system using a tandem lift technique.

In the video, the confident foreman describes the preparations for the task and shows a can-do attitude, but he nevertheless discloses that the safety supervisor is not on site all the time and that certain key equipment for the task is not available. The audience members prepared their scores based on what they learned.

The foreman in the video, it turned out, was an actor. But the real trouble he and his team were courting was familiar—and it was clear that best safety practices were not being observed and that the work the crew was preparing to perform needed to be delayed despite the extra costs involved.

When the audience turned in their scorecards, the potential risks and the scores they assigned using the precursors listed for the new tool were off the charts.

This story was modified Aug. 18 to clarify what type of project Brendan Bechtel related to to his mention of 80% average cost growth.