When an intense construction fire shut down one of Pittsburgh’s busiest bridges last September, fire trouble had not been completely unexpected.

While contractor Joseph B. Fay Co. renovated sections of the Liberty Bridge for the Pennsylvania Dept. of Transportation, hot slag fell when ironworkers were using torches to cut steel beams, which another contractor would replace. The company was trying to stay on top of the risks in different ways; for example, each day, it assigned several fire watchers to spot trouble. The contractor’s senior superintendent said there were other fires involving plywood, all of which were extinguished with a hose, according to U.S. Labor Dept. documents reviewed by ENR.

On Aug. 30 and Sept. 1, the slag sparked two small fires involving tarps, but crews on the bridge never informed the safety staff about them.

On Aug. 30 and Sept. 1, the slag sparked two small fires involving tarps, but crews on the bridge never informed the safety staff about them.

Then, shortly after lunch on Sept. 2 and between 30 and 45 minutes after crews finished cutting through a beam, plastic ventilation pipes burst into flames on the bridge’s lower deck. This time, as the fire grew, the contractor called in fire­fighters. The heat became intense, reaching 1,200° F and deforming a 30-ft steel chord. No one was injured, but the bridge was closed for 24 days, a potential multimillion-dollar mistake under the terms of Fay’s PennDOT contract.

The fires at Liberty Bridge highlight the pivotal role near misses, close calls and precursor incidents can play in construction safety and work quality, especially when employers successfully gather and monitor leading indicators as part of a comprehensive safety program.

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In the hands of safety experts, near misses can be pure gold, helping to correct patterns of risky behavior while driving home important lessons. But what if the near miss is not even “seen” by those involved? In other words, what if the workers involved feel there is really nothing to report? What if they dismiss an incident or chalk it up as a safety success in which skill and years of hard-won experience averted disaster by seeing and putting out a small fire?

“Any fire is a very serious event on any construction project,” says Frank L. Burg, who worked at the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration for 18 years until the 1990s, when he started his own safety consulting business. “I think, as a whole, the [Liberty Bridge] project could be criticized by the fact they didn’t recognize the serious nature of a near miss related to fire.”

Joseph B. Fay Co., in a statement, strongly disagrees with that interpretation, saying the two tarp fires that never reached the ears of off-site safety managers were “unrelated” to the big fire and “extinguished immediately.” The company added, “Fay firmly believes that the prior incidents DO NOT indicate any type of trend.”

The construction industry has made huge strides over the past few decades in improving safety and dramatically cutting down on accidents, injuries and worksite deaths. Companies that track leading indicators have demonstrably better safety records. Near misses, or safety incidents, usually are defined for reporting purposes as unexpected events that cause no significant property damage or injury. To be helpful, near misses must be not only recorded but also assessed with a critical eye, suggests a researcher who has examined the issue.

Robin L. Dillon-Merrill, a professor at Georgetown University, has studied risk and the perception of precursors to disasters in business failures and industrial and aviation accidents. She has written that “prior near misses, where risks were taken without negative consequence, deter any search for new routines” and “often reinforce dangerous behavior.”

Perceptions of Success

Workers who become accustomed to overcoming hazardous situations again and again may count their behaviors as safety successes, instead of as potential accidents. Rather than raise alarms that prompt investigations, near misses “were taken as an indication that existing methods and safety procedures worked,” Dillon-Merrill and her co-authors found in their research.

A pair of “cognitive biases” can blind managers and workers to the reality of near misses. One of these biases is called the “normalization of deviance,” or “the tendency over time to accept anomalies—particularly risky ones—as normal.” For example, a worker who uses a ladder with a broken rung might experience “growing comfort” the more times he or she steps up without incident, notes one of Dillon-Merrill’s studies. The second mental quirk at play is “outcome bias,” in which people pay more attention to the successful outcome than to the process, however flawed it might be, that preceded it.

In a recent interview, Dillon-Merrill talked about how a focus on day-to-day safety habits—taped-down extension cords, lids on coffee cups—possibly could obscure the bigger picture of hazards and behaviors that lead to disastrous accidents.

Analyzing Incident Data

Collecting data on near misses and safety incidents is vital, and the more data, the better, she observes. But simply accumulating data points could be an empty exercise if the data isn’t “analyzed by the right people who can make safety recommendations,” she notes.

Study of near misses in the construction industry is becoming a greater focus of attention. Using near-miss data, incidents that initially seem as if they were the product of unique activity and circumstances later appear to be the logical culmination of similar events whose potential for triggering bigger accidents was underestimated. At an Oregon jobsite in 2015, for example, a small mobile crane operator lifted a pile with the clamp on a vibratory hammer but failed to secure the pile with the whip line or a better rigging. When the clamp opened unexpectedly, it fell onto the crane cab and killed the operator.

Three years earlier, that contractor experienced a similar event, damaging equipment but causing no injury, according to state investigators. The employee documented the incident and determined that the clamp teeth were worn on one side, the investigators noted. In their report, investigators quoted the operator, who noted that the “vibe needs jaws [so] make sure that we keep [a] pile choker on pile.”

At Pittsburgh’s Liberty Bridge, Joseph B. Fay Co. managers told the Occupational Safety & Health Administration about the fire safety measures they had been using in addition to the fire watchers. The company typically removed flammable material from the decks and areas below metal-cutting operations, the senior superintendant and two safety employees told federal investigators. The crew used plywood to cover up holes and prevent sparks and hot slag from falling. Further, anything that couldn’t be moved was supposed to be covered with Kevlar blankets.

However, on the deck below, the plastic ventilation piping, which initially caught fire before spreading to the tarp covering the bridge, was neither moved nor covered. In response to the earlier fires, the contractor posted an employee on the lower deck to watch for fires. Just two hours before the Sept. 2 fire broke out, a supervisor reassigned the worker to another job, documents stated.

Joseph B. Fay Co.’s safety director and safety coordinator told OSHA they had no knowledge of the Aug. 30 and Sept. 1 fires. Although OSHA’s investigation points out the two small tarp fires, the statement from Joseph B. Fay Co. says OSHA “did not link” them to the big blaze. OSHA reduced its fine against the contractor to $7,500, based on the company’s cooperation—it has adjusted its fire safety procedures—and good safety record. The fine was for failing to protect flammable material.

Risk-Tolerant Workers

Risk tolerance by employees, especially veteran workers, supervisors and managers, is a major challenge for companies seeking to head off disasters before they happen and create safer workplaces. In turn, risk tolerance often takes the form of a shortcut. For instance, in a bid to complete a task or stay on schedule, craftworkers and even their supervisors may discard routine safety procedures because they will slow down a task.

John Gambatese, an engineering professor at Oregon State University, said workers can become risk-tolerant the longer they are exposed to hazards without getting injured, which can encourage more shortcuts and risk taking.

“If we are certain about that environment, we [assume we] know what the probability is of getting injured and we tend to discount that a little bit,” Gambatese says. “It’s human nature.”

Recalling an example from when he worked as a consultant to Oregon’s transportation department, Gambatese said road workers would stand next to the traffic cones, even as traffic zipped by at 60 mph. Another common shortcut involved leaping down into a trench to retrieve something without any cave-in protections. “They don’t recognize the level of risk, and they think they can get closer to that boundary,” says Gambatese.

Dwayne Jeffery, senior environmental health and safety manager for Odebrecht’s transportation sector, says one classic shortcut he has seen—and worked to stamp out—involves work on the retaining walls of a bridge’s approaches. As the retaining walls get higher, guardrails must be installed to prevent workers from falling over the side. But crews have to keep repeating the process every 10 or 15 minutes.

“It slows them down. You are stopping two or three people to install those guardrails. instead of doing something ‘productive,’ ” Jeffery says, explaining the attitude and thinking behind the shortcut.

The good news is that contractors can curb risk-taking and create much safer work environments. A key is getting workers to open up about near misses so they can be discussed and corrective action taken. Some contractors already have policies that encourage employees to report an incident; these policies shield the employees from repercussions, provided they themselves have not violated rules.

Without such policies, it is harder to get workers to the table to talk about their near misses. Workers and their supervisors often worry about entangling themselves in accusations. One of the few ways  to turn this around is to provide incentives that will encourage workers to speak up.

While working with a corporate client, safety consultant Burg came up with an effective incentive program. Arguing that a person demonstrates management potential when he or she has the courage and initiative to come forward about a near miss, he convinced company executives to identify and sign up those workers into the firm’s management training program. The new system proved effective in getting workers to come forward and improved the company’s safety culture.

Fostering a Safety Culture

To create a true safety culture, management may have to take a hard look at exactly what’s driving the corner-cutting, as well. Although high-quality construction and sound safety practices go hand in hand, workers often are motivated to take shortcuts to boost productivity. To create a safety culture in which risk-taking is not the norm, companies will need to find ways to help change incentives.

As Burg notes, whether in construction or general industry, a typical production culture has no incentives for recognizing hazards.