It’s a contractor’s worst nightmare—a jobsite fatality that might well have been prevented, simply by being a little more alert to an impending risk.

Though deaths from construction-related injuries are relatively rare, given the size and scope of the industry, emerging data about these incidents offer long-lasting lessons for structuring and gauging the effectiveness of contractor safety programs.

Now, a new study commissioned by the Associated General Contractors of America provides a comprehensive look at fatalities arising from construction-related incidents. The study identifies key contributing factors, as well as suggestions for mitigating them.

Kevin Cannon, AGC’s senior safety director, says the study was motivated in part by the 937 construction fatalities recorded in 2015, a 4% increase from the previous year. “With construction activity on the rise nationwide, and contractors having difficulty finding skilled labor, we felt a good research effort would provide the data necessary to help contractors [create] strategies to reduce risks,” Cannon says.

Many of the AGC study results confirmed previous safety research findings. Falls remain the leading cause of deaths in construction, accounting for one-third of all fatalities, followed by transportation incidents (29%). Though the heavy and civil sector had the industry’s highest annual fatality rate, with 24 fatalities per 100,000 workers, specialty trades accounted for significantly more fatalities (56%) than any other sector.

That coincides with another finding—when it comes to size, firms with fewer than 10 employees account for more fatalities than their larger counterparts.

“This is likely the result of being too small to have a full-time staff safety and health person,” Cannon says, noting that previous safety research largely overlooked the smallest contractors. “It’s yet another responsibility for the person running the firm.”

Uncovering Answers

The AGC report recommends that prime contractors take the lead in instilling a safety culture among their subcontractors. Potential actions include conveying risks and requirements in company communication and training to ensure that all safety policies and procedures are fully understood and followed.

Mark Hoffman, H&S Director for Rudolph Libbe Inc., part of Rudolph Libbe Group, Walbridge, Ohio, says he’ll often strike up a conversation with a subcontractor’s operations person or general superintendent, asking if they can explain their safety program or talk about things they’re doing differently from last year.

“If they can, that’s a good sign,” Hoffman says. “It means the contractor is committed and engaged in the process.”

A response along the lines of “talk to my safety director,” on the other hand, “shows they don’t have the right culture to fit in with us,” he adds.

The AGC study uncovered some surprising results, as well. Fridays, which were long assumed to be particularly risky workdays, given the distractions of the impending weekend, actually had fewer incidents compared to other weekdays.

Also, noon is the peak time for fatalities, countering previous research that placed the majority of fatal accidents in the morning.

“When you think about it, that makes sense,” observes Hoffman. “That’s when employees are coming back to work and probably still distracted by what they were doing or talking about on break.”

That’s one of the reasons Hoffman’s firm conducts a second daily pretask planning session, complementing the one held at the start of the workday.

“We engage the employees and get them focused back on work,” he says. “It takes only a few minutes, but we feel they’re better prepared to get back on the job safely.”

Rick Reubelt, director of environmental health and safety for Haselden Construction, Centennial, Colo., adds that even companies like his that have an excellent safety program can learn from the AGC study. He says it supports what many fellow professionals believed was happening but lacked the data to substantiate.

“We have used the data from executive level down to craft-level workers to raise awareness to issues we may encounter or for comparative purposes,” Reubelt says.  “The data has also been included in weekly educational safety alerts we sent to Haselden’s project teams for their weekly toolbox talks and site-wide safety meetings with their teams.”

Acting on Emerging Risks

One finding in the AGC study that cuts across all aspects of construction aligns with the growth in the industry’s aging workforce. Workers in the 35-54 age group account for 50% of fatalities, with the fatality rate rising steadily from age 35. The rate peaks among those age 65 or older, with 19 deaths per 100,000 workers per year.

Along with creating awareness about increased safety concerns related to an aging workforce, the study suggests reconsidering employment practices for field work assignments and stressing in training programs that age and experience don’t necessarily translate into a lower risk for injury or death.

“We’re not competitors when it comes to safety. We should all be out there helping each other.”

– Mark Hoffman, H&S Director, Rudolph Libbe Inc.

Reubelt notes that Haselden and others strive to improve programs, such as its “stretch-and-flex” wellness program for workers in the field. But all contractors should take steps to address the general shortage of trained and apprentice craftspeople.

“This has been a major focus for us for several years at this point, and the survey just added additional support to our cause for concern,” he says.

The study, conducted by the Myers-Lawson School of Construction at Virginia Tech, used advanced statistical analysis techniques to examine detailed, confidential fatality reports from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for the period 2010-2012, when 2,338 construction-related fatalities were recorded nationwide.

Cannon says the study was more than just a review of statistics across various categories: It sought to drill down to the root causes of the incidents, with particular emphasis on work-zone-related accidents.

Along with providing valuable data for contractors to benchmark their own programs, the AGC study is unique from other assessments of BLS data in that it identifies potential actions that contractors can take to enhance safety awareness and practices.

“If a contractor is recording a high incidence of injuries in certain areas, this data can help them assess what can be done to prevent those injuries from getting worse,” he says.

Where the AGC study may prove most valuable is stimulating discussion and increasing awareness of construction safety risks. Both Hoffman and Reubelt say their firms actively participate in regional and national programs designed to share ideas and best practices.

“Education is tantamount to expanding safety capabilities to all of the trades within the industry,” Reubelt says. “We work to participate where and when we can with educating anyone who seeks out training with us or through our partnerships.”

Adds Hoffman, “We’re not competitors when it comes to safety. We should all be out there helping each other.”