Construction Safety: Learning the Hard Way
I started my career in construction the way most others do; I hired on with whoever would take me.
I had no experience or formal training. But I did have a willingness to learn and a solid work ethic.
“Strong back, weak mind.” “Get in where you fit in.” “Can you show up on time? You’re hired.”
It was back-breaking work at the blunt end of a shovel, and I was glad to have the job. I did what I was told, worked hard, watched, listened, and asked a lot of questions. As a result, I moved up the ladder and earned my promotions by taking on more and more responsibility.
It was the only way I knew to get ahead.
But it was risky business, and people got hurt, no matter how careful we were.
By the time I was 30 years old, I had seen a man killed after being pinned between a semi-tractor and its trailer. I had been hit with a piece of heavy equipment, fallen off a roof, had two fingers crushed, one on each hand, and survived being buried alive in a sewer trench.
And not one of those incidents was ever reported to OSHA.
Construction workforce facts and figures
I was ignorant about construction and construction safety, and I wasn’t alone.
The majority (56%+) of construction workers have a high school education or less, and some have no formal education.
Construction work is unsteady–rising and falling with the economy, and some work is seasonal. The typical construction worker’s median employment term is under four years.
The workforce is transient, undereducated, and often poorly trained.
Construction safety: A moving target.
Construction safety training, if any, is typically limited to what you pick up as you learn your craft. But then, if you’re lucky, the people you work with value safety. And if they do, chances are, you’ll value safety too.
Of course, there are no guarantees.
Accidents happen… a lot.
The construction industry is one of the most injury-prone and deadly industries in the United States.
Maybe that’s because, in addition to the lack of formal safety training, safety standards differ drastically from one company to another.
And standards can even differ among individual work crews within the same company. What’s acceptable on Jim’s crew might get you kicked off the job site on Jane’s crew.
It just depends.
How many construction accidents, injuries, and fatalities go unreported each year?
No one knows.
Estimates range from 50% to 79%, but who’s counting? Not those responsible for training their workforce and keeping them safe, that’s for sure.
Studies suggest that construction companies with a “poor safety climate” typically have workers that underreport injuries compared to companies with more positive safety cultures, and I can vouch for that.
In my 40 years on the job, I’ve seen everything from peer pressure to downright bribery to keep an injured employee quiet.
But even without the pressure, most of us needed to keep working to provide for our families. So unless we were laid up and unable to move, we came to work.
That’s just the construction worker’s way.
Construction safety: Teaching what I didn’t know.
I didn’t start my career as a construction safety manager, and I certainly never applied for the position. But the order came down, and I had no other choice.
If I wanted to keep my job, the role was mine, whether I liked it or not.
The firm I was working for had grown, and they were winning big jobs. We were a union shop now, with over twenty employees, and OSHA requirements suddenly applied.
The owner approached me directly and told me what I needed to do.
“Read this,” he said, “and make sure we can pass inspection. Last thing I need is some government agency telling me how to run my business.”
And that was it.
I squeezed my part-time career as a construction safety manager in between my general superintendent and project management duties.
Every week I gave toolbox talks around the tailgate of my truck before passing out the paychecks.
And I worked with the Laborers, Operating Engineers, Teamsters, and Carpenter’s unions to gather what safety training materials I could.
Once a month, I presented safety training on subjects I had just learned. And I gave that training to a group of tired, irritable construction workers who found great joy in mocking and poking fun.
We talked about safety because those were the rules, but creating a safety-oriented culture takes time, effort, funding, and strong leadership from management and the personnel in the field.
New safety equipment is expensive too, so the owner rented what he couldn’t afford, which meant we often didn’t have what we needed.
We could refuse to work in unsafe conditions, of course, but as I said–we all had a family to support, so we improvised and did our best.
And when things went wrong and people got hurt, leadership blamed us. And this is despite research showing that punitive measures are the least effective means of improving safety behaviors.
Construction safety has a long way to go.
I’d like to think I made a difference, but it’s hard to say.
Two years after I left that company, I heard they ran into a string of bad luck.
One of their drivers collided with an overpass while delivering a piece of equipment to a job site. In his rush, the driver failed to measure the height of his load. No one was seriously injured, but the collision caused substantial damage to the bridge structure, and repairs totaled nearly $50,000.00.
They had another trench collapse. The excavators used a trench box, but loose soils fell away, exposing a duct bank that carried power, data cables, and telecommunication lines to an entire college campus.
My former employer’s new site superintendent didn’t want a schedule delay, so he told the excavating contractor to “just hurry and get it done.”
The duct bank collapsed, shutting down power, data, and telecommunications to the campus for over a week. In addition to the embarrassment, the company paid heavy fines and nearly lost the contract over the incident.
Then the economy turned, and I heard my former employer went bankrupt.
That meant all those people I used to work with were out on the street, looking for new jobs and carrying all their bad safety habits to the next company that hired them.
Unsafe construction: You don’t know what you don’t know
This story sounds like fiction or a one-off, bad-apple construction company, but I can assure you this situation is more common than you realize.
Unions, trade schools, and apprenticeship programs all include safety training as part of their curriculum, but unfortunately, not many construction workers come into the industry through those routes.
And most small to mid-size construction companies are founded by people who ‘came up through the ranks,’ just like I did–learning on the job.
The untapped potential of construction safety
Larger companies promote safety within their corporate culture because they understand that safety measures are investments, not expenses.
The actual expenses in construction are the costs associated with accidents, injuries, and fatalities.
For instance, the Liberty Mutual 2021 Workplace Safety Index estimated that employers paid more than $1 billion per week for direct workers’ compensation costs for disabling non-fatal workplace injuries in 2018.
Employers that promote safety significantly reduce injuries and illnesses and the costs associated with these conditions, including workers’ compensation payments, medical expenses, and lost productivity.
Aside from improving workplace safety and health, employers often find that their organizations’ productivity and profitability improve as a result.
- Greater recruiting power
- Better employee retention through job satisfaction
- Higher productivity through a happy, healthy workforce
- Lower insurance premiums and workman’s compensation claims
- Fewer schedule delays due to a tired, sore, injured workforce
- Less administration time writing incident reports and accident claims
- Increased sales through lower operating costs
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the American Society of Safety Professionals offer several great programs and free resources to help construction companies build better safety programs.
The National Safety Council offers this 20-page guide for executives, explaining the business case for safety. And The Center for Construction Research and Training provides free research, training materials, programs, and resources to help protect your business and your greatest asset–your people.
Construction safety is no accident.
Contact your Linarc representative today and see how cloud-based software built for construction can help you take a proactive approach to your construction safety program.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Linarc, its management, partners, sponsors, or employees.