By Wayne Crew, Anthony Leketa and John McNeill
Nearly 1,000 U.S. construction workers died of work-related injuries each year from 2011 to 2020, with the industry accounting for 20% of all workplace deaths, even though it made up just 7.3% of the national workforce. The National Academy of Construction believes that promoting a safety mindset is critical to preventing injuries and deaths—and it needs to begin when future industry participants are undergraduates.
But first, changes are needed.
Safety is often learned on the job through informal training and the advice of experienced coworkers—and, unfortunately, through first-hand experience with accidents or close calls. This leaves a considerable gap in safety knowledge. Although some companies and vocational tech high schools work to fill that gap through standalone training, more must be done.
Infusing a safety mindset requires broadening the industry-academic partnership, with both acknowledging and resolving competing factors. Higher education must balance the addition of safety curriculum with already-packed course loads and accreditation requirements, while industry must balance safety against cost and scheduling constraints.
Companies should connect with the universities they tend to hire from—not only as a recruiter, but also as a true partner in shaping the education that students will need to stay safe during their careers. Industry must recognize that universities are bound by accreditation requirements for how they design coursework and for what students choose to study. Such requirements can often make up half of a student’s courses, leaving few openings for electives.
Educators now are accustomed to a generalized safety course model, with topical, tactical information about hazards, mitigation and prevention. This approach may seem to make safety accreditation simpler, but there is a downside: Such standalone courses, however well-intentioned they are, can have the effect of minimizing safety as a requirement to be “checked off.” A standalone safety course also may displace other courses in a student’s curriculum.
Instead, weaving safety information into the core messaging for all courses not only keeps coursework and accreditation requirements intact, it also drives home the message that safety must be top of mind as something future engineers, architects, construction managers—everyone in the field—must always think about.
Integrating safety into multiple courses also allows for greater reflection of current industry practices. The best faculty ensure that course revisions are purpose-driven and prepare students for their chosen career. Close collaboration with industry makes it easier for faculty to keep pace with changes to safety best practices that are specific to the topics of their courses.
University curricula will need some updating, too. Construction safety requires a thorough knowledge of structural, mechanical, electrical, and materials engineering and an understanding of the properties of—and risks related to—various materials and products, as well as the processes and environments in which they are used.
Practical skill, as well as confidence and mastery, are built through hands-on learning incorporated into course curricula. The industry demands greater understanding than can be learned through classroom-only lessons; universities that provide students with hands-on experiences early and often can support a more thorough safety mindset.
Industry partnerships will be important. Upskilling the talent pipeline with a safety mindset requires assistance from industry in the form of internships, hiring and input. Students exposed to a culture of safety through their internships can return to campus with real-world lessons that help further build the safety mindset in future curricula. By immediately applying skills learned in the classroom to the real world, students are more apt to retain those skills as part of their foundation.
A safety mindset needs to be more than an educational afterthought. Through ongoing discussions and feedback, construction industry partners can help universities provide students with current, real-world knowledge they can apply as soon as they graduate and, importantly, throughout their careers. ■
Wayne Crew is past president of the National Academy of Construction; Anthony Leketa is a member and on the advisory board of the School of Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute; John McNeill is Bernard M. Gordon Dean of Engineering at that university.