Busting Construction Safety Myths

While statistics speak volumes, the reality regarding worker/jobsite safety is that it is not a new concept but instead a topic that has been discussed, rehashed, ignored and revisited. As of late, the topic has risen from the ashes, much like the mythical Phoenix, to live again in our industry, which by its own account is one of the most hazardous ways in which to make a living.

Most would quickly recognize what have become two of the most iconic photographs – decades old images that artfully display an all too precarious truth, an array of non-fall protected construction workers building what could arguably be considered two of the most recognizable architectural landmarks in the United States, the Empire State Building and the George Washington Bridge.

Industry insiders, experts, foreman and the multitude of others comprising a multifaceted and multicultural workforce are aware that working without fall protection is simply an accident waiting to happen. More than a handful of the industry, as well as the general public, are probably not as aware that five ironworkers died as a result of falls during the construction of the Empire State Building, and many workers died during the construction of the George Washington Bridge.

While at first glance the industry appears to prioritize safety, one must question if this is a truth or simply a new twist on an old problem that has re-emerged as a media savvy buzzword and a cause célèbre when in truth, denial and an inability to approach safety proactively rather than reactively continue to cost the industry millions of dollars and untold human suffering.

Very little in life happens in a straight line, and the construction industry is no exception. But when addressing safety, the delineation between “truth” and “myth” is too important and therefore must be addressed with unwavering candor and integrity because although it appears construction safety has become an industry-wide battle cry, it still remains a cruel oxymoron.

Few would argue that the word “safety” can be found over and over again in construction project documents such as agreements with owners, subcontracts, purchase orders, specifications, loss prevention manuals, inspection checklists, progress reports, daily reports and the plethora of administrative paperwork that, when used efficiently and effectively, should be helpful.

However, with such a prolific place in both the written and oral history of the industry, how often if ever is it defined? The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines safety as a noun and more specifically, “freedom from the occurrence or risk of injury, danger or loss.” Closer to home and more directly related to the construction industry, The National Safety Council defines safety as “the control of recognized hazards to attain an acceptable level of risk.” An acceptable level of risk is what remains after all technologically and economically feasible means have been applied to control a specific hazard.

As a result, the first “myth buster” is that safety is not an activity but rather a result. Safety occurs by a sequence of actions taken by individuals deemed responsible and in charge of the creation and implementation of programs, policies and procedures that prevent accidents.

Myth #1: Being in compliance with 29 CFR 1926, revised, the Occupational Safety and Health Regulations for Construction ensures a safe job site.

The Truth: Compliance with 29 CFR 1926, revised, only ensures that the construction company is in compliance with 29 CFR 1926, revised. As many are already aware, OSHA 29 CFR 1926, revised addresses an extensive number of jobsite situations. The rules are intended to prevent accidents. However, no rulebook, regardless of how large, can adequately address all the permutations and possibilities that exist on a jobsite, nor can they offer a means by which to prevent a construction accident associated with a particular situation, so they depend on the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act of 1970 which requires the contractor to eliminate all hazards that he knows or should have known to exist on the job site that are capable of causing serious injury or death even when no rule exists.

Myth #2: A safety program will ensure job site/worker safety.

The Truth: The creation of a safety program is only one piece of a complex puzzle to help support worker safety. As a result, simply establishing a safety program only creates the program. Without implementation and reinforcement, it is nothing more than an oversized multi-ring binder focused on any number of topics that has a high potential to spend most of its life on the top shelf or in the back of a filing cabinet gathering dust. The concept of a safety program is often used interchangeably with that of a safety solution or discussed as a means by which to eliminate job site/worker accidents. This is a very dangerous misconception as it is integral for the success of any safety program that effective, efficient and measurable means of management practices and methods be both pro-active as well as reactive (especially in crisis management). All too often, construction companies with elaborate yet underutilized safety programs realize above-average injury rates.

Myth #3: Safety incentive programs result in job site/worker safety.

The Truth: Rewarding an employee should not be necessary for doing the job for which they have been trained. From a behavioral standpoint, the connection between working safe and the reward more often than not gets lost because the reward is perceived as an inconsequential token reflective of something the employee really does not want, need or value. On the other hand, if the reward or incentive is too large, then the reason to work safely does not arise out of an authentic desire but rather the incentive can increase tendencies to under-report or misreport accidents and mishaps for fear of losing the reward. In short, the truth about safety gets lost in the desire to acquire the incentive/reward.

The picture is not one-dimensional and bleak, as many companies are working diligently to create a proactive culture of safety as well as addressing the day-to-day realities to keep their workers safe.

It is imperative as professionals in the industry that we collectively decide that the age of safety myths is over. It is not only an ethical duty as professionals to do so, but it is simply smart business.  By making safety a priority and working with the truth, projects can and will realize unprecedented success.

Joshua Estrin is an associate at Sarasota, Fla.-based construction forensic services firm Stephen A. Estrin & Co. Inc., specializing in behavioral safety management support.  He is also an adjunct professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., teaching social welfare policy and group therapy. He can be reached at joshua@sa-estrin.com.

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