Thomas Lyons


When we need to reach a little higher, we strap extensions—stilts—on workers’ legs. When fearing a fall, we tie workers to buildings with a length of rope, and then we hope. We still use ladders developed 10,000 years ago to get from here to there and when materials are needed high up in a building, we install a pulley and rope like my mother used on her clothesline. Enough.

Rather than eliminate what hurts, we offer barriers so it hurts less. But personal protective equipment such as gloves and glasses need to take a back seat to prevention.

So enough relying on ancient methods, and on what the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires, in setting safety goals.

The first place to start is with head protection. OSHA has recognized the superiority of new-generation helmets designed to stay on heads in a fall just like a bicycle or ski helmet. OSHA is buying the helmets for its employees. Yet for other employers, it recommends helmets but says only that companies should “consider investing in better head protection.” That’s like parents strapping on helmets to ride bikes with their children but leaving the kids’ heads unprotected.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, OSHA soon after published an interim final rule to protect worker exposure to the virus, and the temporary standard took immediate effect. OSHA needs to do the same with life-saving helmets.

More broadly, construction sector firms and OSHA need to change because our safety efforts, for all that’s been accomplished, are still failing. The rate of fatal injuries per 10,000 workers has generally remained in the same range since 2011.

When there is a safety incident, we consistently blame the workers rather than the work conditions. But the best way to improve safety is to have worker personal protection take a back seat to preventing and eliminating the hazards. For example, a table saw, designed to eliminate the danger of cutting off users’ hands or fingers, has been sold for 20 years.

Does OSHA require such injury-prevention technology on all saws? It doesn’t, since that would require a standard. Partly due to the power of the saw manufacturers and observance of the long, multi-year rule-making procedures, we will continue to see people cut off their fingers.

There’s more about OSHA that needs to be rethought. While the agency maintains a list of top offenders, it should also create a list of top contractors that have never failed an inspection. Owners would appreciate that.

More importantly, OSHA gauges a contractor’s safety performance using a formula based on recordable injuries and the hours a firm works in a year. Contractors punish or celebrate their workers depending on whether these numbers go up or down. Per the recent University of Colorado-Boulder study that analyzed this method, “The occurrence of recordable injuries is almost entirely random.”

I suspect that people are reluctant to change or to challenge OSHA for fear that its inspectors would knock on their office door the next morning. I once spoke to 300 safety professionals and asked, “When was the last time you got a letter in the mail from OSHA saying: ‘We enjoyed walking your project today and appreciated how you are keeping your workers safe. Great inspection.’”

OSHA and insurers must reset their goals for more emphasis on eliminating hazardous conditions. If a contractor rids its sites of ladders and stilts and finger-cutting saws, insurers ought to automatically grant that firm a break on its premiums.

OSHA also must stop using conventional recordable incident rates because they don’t reflect how much an employer cares about safety. Agency inspectors should start asking workers during walk-throughs if they have had any training on suicide prevention or on availability of mental health support. Maybe OSHA will learn something just by asking workers if they like working on a project. We must embrace the changes innovation brings and get past the temptation to say “we have always done it this way.” That line is a killer.

OSHA, instead of always doing what it has done before, can issue an interim standard to eliminate the conventional hard hat, not in years, but tomorrow.


T.J. Lyons, who previously worked for Gilbane Building Co. and Turner Construction, runs Lyonetics, a con- sulting firm that provides expert witness services. He can be reached at